The Carbonari were a secret society divided into small covert cells scattered across Italy. Although agendas varied, evidence suggests that despite regional variations, most of the membership agreed upon the creation of a liberal, unified Italy. The Carbonari were anti-clerical in both their philosophy and programme. The Papal constitution Ecclesiam a Jesu Christo and the encyclical Qui pluribus were directed against them. The controversial document, the Alta Vendita, which called for a liberal or modernist takeover of the Catholic Church, was attributed to the Sicilian Carbonari.
Although it is not clear where they were originally established, they first came to prominence in the Kingdom of Naples during the Napoleonic wars. Although some of the society's documents claimed that it had origins in medieval France, and that its progenitors were under the sponsorship of Francis I of France during the sixteenth century, this claim can not be verified by outside sources. Although a plethora of theories have been advanced as to the origins of the Carbonari, the organization most likely emerged as an offshoot of Freemasonry, as part of the spread of liberal ideas from the French Revolution. They first became influential in the Kingdom of Naples (under the control of Joachim Murat) and in the Papal States, the most resistant opposition to the Risorgimento. The Carbonari were probably an offshoot of the Freemasons, from whom they differed in important particulars, and first began to assume importance in southern Italy during the Napoleonic wars.
As a secret society that was often targeted for suppression by conservative governments, the Carbonari operated largely in secret. The name Carbonari identified the members as rural “charcoal-burners”; the place where they met was called a “baracca”, the members called themselves “good cousin” while people who did not belong to the Carbonari were “pagani”. There were special ceremonies to initiate the members.
The aim of the Carbonari was the creation of a constitutional monarchy or a republic; they wanted also to defend the rights of common people against all forms of absolutism. Carbonari, to achieve their purpose, talked of fomenting armed revolts.
The membership was separated into two classes—apprentice and master. There were two ways to become a master: through serving as an apprentice for at least six months or by already being a Freemason upon entry. Their initiation rituals were structured around the trade of charcoal-selling, suiting their name.
In 1814 the Carbonari wanted to obtain a constitution for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by force. The Bourbon king, Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, was opposed to them. The Bonapartist Joachim Murat had wanted to create a united and independent Italy. In 1815 Ferdinand I found his kingdom swarming with them. Society in the Regno comprised nobles, officers of the army, small landlords, government officials, peasants and priests, with a small urban middle class. Society was dominated by the Papacy. On 15 August 1814, Cardinals Ercole Consalvi and Bartolomeo Pacca issued an edict forbidding all secret societies, to become members of these secret associations, to attend their meetings, or to furnish a meeting-place for such, under severe penalties.
The Carbonari first arose during the resistance to the French occupation, notably under Joachim Murat, the Bonapartist King of Naples. However, once the wars ended, they became a nationalist organisation with a marked anti-Austrian tendency and were instrumental in organising revolutions in Italy in 1820–1821 and 1831.
The 1820 revolution began in Naples against King Ferdinand I. Riots, inspired by events in Cadiz, Spain that same year, took place in Naples, bandying anti-absolutist goals and demanding a liberal constitution. On July 1, two officers, Michele Morelli and Joseph Silvati, (who had been part of the army of Murat under Guglielmo Pepe), marched towards the town of Nola in Campania at the head of their regiments of cavalry.
Worried about the protests, King Ferdinand agreed to grant a new constitution and the adoption of a parliament. The victory, albeit partial, illusory and apparent, caused a lot of hope in the peninsula and local conspirators, led by Santorre di Santarosa, marched toward Turin, capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia and 12 March 1821 obtained a constitutional monarchy and liberal reforms and liberal reforms as a result of Carbonari actions. However, the Holy Alliance did not tolerate such revolutionary compromises and in February 1821 sent an army that defeated the outnumbered and poorly equipped insurgents in the south. In Piedmont, King Vittorio Emanuele I, undecided what to do, abdicated in favor of his brother Charles Felix of Sardinia; but Charles Felix, more resolute, invited an Austria military intervention. On April 8, the Habsburg army defeated the rebels and the uprisings of 1820 - 1821, triggered almost entirely by the Carbonari, ended up collapsing.
On September 13, 1821 Pope Pius VII with the bull Ecclesiam a Jesu Christo condemned the Carbonari as a Freemason secret society, excommunicating its members.
Among the principal leaders of the Carbonari, Morelli and Silvati were sentenced to death; Pepe went into exile; Confalonieri and Pellico Maroncelli were imprisoned.
The Carbonari were defeated but not beaten; they took part in the revolution of July 1830 that supported the liberal policy of King Louis Philippe of France on the wings of victory for the uprising in Paris. The Italian Carbonari took up arms against some states in central and northern Italy, particularly the Papal States and Modena.
Ciro Menotti was to take the reins of the initiative, trying to find the support of Duke Francis IV of Modena, who pretended to respond positively in return for granting the title of King of Italy: but the Duke made the double play and Menotti, virtually unarmed, was arrested the day before the date fixed for the uprising. Francis IV, at the suggestion of the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich, had condemned him to death, along with many others among Menotti's allies. This was the last major effort by the secret group.
In 1820, the Neapolitan Carbonari once more took up arms, in order to wring a constitution from King Ferdinand I. They advanced against the capital from Nola under a military officer and the Abbot Minichini. They were joined by General Pepe and many officers and government officials, and the king took an oath to observe the Spanish constitution in Naples. The movement spread to Piedmont, and Victor Emmanuel resigned the throne in favour of his brother Charles Felix. It was only through the intervention of Austria. The Carbonari secretly continued their agitation against Austria and the governments in friendly connection with it. They formed a vendita. Pope Pius VII issued a general condemnation of the secret society of the Carbonari. The association lost its influence by degrees and was gradually absorbed into the new political organizations that sprang up in Italy; its members became affiliated especially with Mazzini's "Young Italy". From Italy the organization was carried to France where it appeared as the Charbonnerie, which, was divided into ventes. Members were especially numerous in Paris. The chief aim of the association in France also was political, namely, to obtain a constitution in which the conception of the sovereignty of the people could find expression. From Paris the movement spread rapidly through the country, and it was the cause of several mutinies among the troops; it lost its importance after several conspirators were executed, especially as quarrels broke out among the leaders. The Charbonnerie took part in the Revolution, 1830; after the fall of the Bourbons, its influence rapidly declined. After this a Charbonnerie démocratique was formed among the French Republicans; after 1841, nothing more was heard of it. Carbonari were also to be found in Spain, but their numbers and importance were more limited than in the other Romance countries.
In 1830, Carbonari took part in the July Revolution in France. This gave them hope that a successful revolution might be staged in Italy. A bid in Modena was an outright failure, but in February 1831, several cities in the Papal States rose up and flew the Carbonari tricolour. A volunteer force marched on Rome but was destroyed by Austrian troops who had intervened at the request of Pope Gregory XVI. After the failed uprisings of 1831, the governments of the various Italian states cracked down on the Carbonari, who now virtually ceased to exist. The more astute members realised they could never take on the Austrian army in open battle and joined a new movement, Giovane Italia ("Young Italy") led by the nationalist Giuseppe Mazzini. Independent from French Philadelphians were instead the homonymous carbonara group born in Southern Italy, especially in Puglia  and in the Cilento, between 1816 and 1828. In Cilento, in 1828, an insurrection of Philadelphia, who called for the restoration of the Neapolitan Constitution of 1820, was fiercely repressed by the director of the Bourbon police Francesco Saverio Del Carretto: among the atrocities we remember the destruction of the village of Bosco.
This defeat made it clear to many Carbonari (such as Giuseppe Mazzini, one of the most acute Carbonari leaders) that militarily, especially if alone, they could not compete with Austria, one of the greatest powers of the Old Continent. They founded a new secret society called the Young Italy in which many members would trace their origins and inspiration to the Carbonari. Rapidly declining in influence and members, the Carboneri practically ceased to exist, although the official history of this important company had continued, wearily, until 1848.
Prominent members of the Carbonari included:Gabriele Rossetti
Silvio Pellico (1788–1854) and Pietro Maroncelli (1795–1846)
both were imprisoned by the Austrians for years, many of which they spent in Spielberg fortress in Brno, Southern Moravia. After his release, Pellico wrote a book Le mie prigioni
, describing in detail his ten-year ordeal. Maroncelli lost one leg in prison and was instrumental in translating and editing of Pellico's book in Paris (1833).
Marquis de Lafayette (hero of the American and French Revolutions),
Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (the future French emperor Napoleon III) Almost certain but highly disputed.
French revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui.
The Portuguese Carbonari (Carbonária) was first founded there in 1822 but was soon disbanded.
A new organization of the same name and claiming to be its continuation was founded in 1896 by Artur Augusto Duarte da Luz de Almeida. This organisation was active in efforts to educate the people and was involved in various antimonarchist conspiracies. Most notably, Carbonária members were active in the assassination of King Charles I and his heir, Prince Louis Philip in 1908. Carbonária members also played a part in the 5 October 1910 revolution that deposed the Constitutional Monarchy and implemented the republic. One commonality among them was their hostility to the Church and they contributed to the republic's anticlericalism.}
Two results of great importance in the progress of the European Revolution (Revolutions of 1848) proceeded from the events that occurred at Naples in 1820-21. One was the reorganization of the Carbonari, consequent upon the publicity given to their organization when it had brought about the revolution (and the secrecy in which it had hitherto been enveloped was no longer deemed necessary); the other was the extension of the organization beyond the Alps. When the Neapolitan revolution had been effected, the Carbonari emerged from their mystery, published their constitution statutes, and ceased to conceal their programme and their cards of membership.
In particular, the dispersion of the Carbonari leaders had, at the same time, the effect of extending their influence in France. General Guglielmo Pepe proceeded to Barcelona when the counter-revolution was imminent at Naples and his life was no longer safe there; and to the same city went several of the Piedmontese revolutionists when the country was Austrianized after the same lawless fashion. The dispersion of Scalvini and Ugoni that took refuge at Geneva and others of the proscribed that proceeded to London added to the progress which Carbonarism was making in France, suggested to General Pepe the idea of an international secret society, which would combine for a common purpose the advanced political reformers of all the European States.
The story Vanina Vanini by Stendhal involved a hero in the Carbonari and a heroine who became obsessed by this. It was made into a film in 1961.
Robert Louis Stevenson's story "The Pavilion on the Links" features the Carbonari as the villains of the plot.
Katherine Neville's novel The Fire features the Carbonari as part of a plot involving a mystical chess service.
In Wilkie Collins' "The Woman in White" the character of Professor Pesca is a member of 'The Brotherhood', an organisation placed contemporaneously with, and similarly featured as, the Carbonari. Clyde Hyder suspects that the model for Prof. Pesca was Gabriele Rossetti, who was a member of the Carbonari, as well as an Italian teacher resident in London during the 1840s.
Anton Felix Schindler's biography of Beethoven "Beethoven as I Knew Him" states that his close connection with the composer was begun in 1815 when the latter requested an account of Schindler's involvement with a riot of Napoleon's supporters in Vienna, who were agitating against the Carbonari uprisings. Schindler was arrested and lost a year at college. Beethoven was sympathetic and, as a result, became a close friend of Schindler.
The Carbonari are mentioned prominently in the Sherlock Holmes short story "The Adventure of the Red Circle" (1911), written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The Carbonari are also mentioned briefly in the book "Resurrection Men" by T. K. Welsh, in which the main character's father is a member of the secret organisation.
They feature in Tim Powers' The Stress of Her Regard as opponents of the vampire-backed Austrian Empire.
Mr. Settembrini's grandfather in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain is said to be Carbonari.
The Carbonari are mentioned in The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian, part of the Aubrey-Maturin series.
Umberto Eco's The Cemetery of Prague mentions the Carbonari, with the main character joining them as a spy.