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The name of a secret political society, which played an important part, chiefly in France and Italy, during the first decades of the nineteenth century. The improbable claim was made that the society originated some centuries earlier, and the French king Francis I appears in the secret documents of the Carbonari as one of their protectors. In reality the association originated as the eighteenth century passed into the nineteenth; it was one of the results of the political movement which accompanied the great French Revolution and of the political principles that were proclaimed at that time. It is not certain whether the Carbonari, as a political society, had its first organization in France or Italy. At any rate the power of the association was first shown at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the Kingdom of Naples and the States of the Church. Just as the name "Carbonari" was adopted from the charcoal-burners, so also in their secret intercourse they made use of many expressions taken from the occupation of charcoal-burning. The place where the members assembled was called baracca (hut), its interior vendita (place of selling coal), and its surroundings foresta (forest). The members called one another buon cugino (good cousin); those not belonging to the society were pagani (heathens). The Carbonari were divided into two classes: apprentices and masters. No apprentice could rise to the grade of a master before the end of six months. The members made themselves known to one another by secret signs in shaking hands. These signs for masters and apprentices were unlike. One of the underlying principles of the society, it is true, was that the "good brotherhood" rested on religion and virtue; but by this was understood a purely natural conception of religion, and the mention of religion was absolutely forbidden. In reality the association was opposed to the Church. Nevertheless, it venerated St. Theobald as its patron saint. The members belonging to each separate district formed a vendita, called thus from the place of assembly. At the head was the alta vendita, to which deputies were chosen from the other vendite. A small hatchet was the distinguishing symbol of a master, the apprentices were indicated by a little fagot worn in the button-hole. Initiation into the society was accompanied by special ceremonies which, in the reception into the grade of master, imitated the Passion of Christ in a manner actually blasphemous. The members were bound by a frightful oath to observe absolute silence concerning whatever occurred in the vendita. The similarity between the secret society of the Carbonari and Freemasonry is evident. Freemasons could enter the Carbonari as masters at once. The openly-avowed aim of the Carbonari was political: they sought to bring about a constitutional monarchy or a republic, and to defend the rights of the people against all forms of absolutism. They did not hesitate to compass their ends by assassination and armed revolt. As early as the first years of the nineteenth century the society was widespread in Neapolitan territory, especially in the Abruzzi and Calabria. Not only men of low birth but also government officials of high rank, officers, and even members of the clergy belonged to it.
In 1814 the Carbonari resolved to obtain a constitution for the Kingdom of Naples by force. The lawful ruler, Ferdinand I, was opposed to them, but the king placed on the throne by Napoleon, Murat, connected himself with them in March, 1815, as he believed the time was come to create a united and independent Italy. However, Murat was captured and shot in October of the same year and Ferdinand once more mounted the throne. In the following years the Carbonari grew in strength and power in all the districts of the Kingdom of Naples and made preparations for a new revolutionary movement. From Naples the Carbonari spread into the neighbouring territories of the States of the Church, and here also the society sought to overthrow the absolute dominion of the papacy. The Carbonari even promulgated a forged papal Brief which contained an apparent confirmation of the association. On 15 August, 1814, Cardinals Consalvi and Pacca issued an edict against secret societies, especially against Freemasonry and the Carbonari, in which all were forbidden under severe penalties to become members of these secret associations, to attend their meetings, or to furnish a meeting-place for such. Notwithstanding all this the propaganda of the Carbonari went on, chiefly in the district of Macerata, where an outbreak occurred, 25 June, 1817, which, however, was easily suppressed by the papal troops (cf. the important report, of Leggieri, Processo romano contro i congiurati di Macerata di 1817, ristretto presentato alla congregazione criminale, Rome, 1818).
When the Spanish revolution broke out 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, Morelli, and the Abbot Minichini. They were joined by General Pepe and many officers and government officials, and the king on 13 July took an oath to observe the Spanish constitution in Naples (cf. Pepe's defence of himself, Relation des evenements politiques et militaires qui ont eu lieu a Naples en 1820 et 1821, Paris, 1822). The movement also spread to Piedmont, and Victor Emmanuel resigned the throne in favour of his brother Charles Felix. It was only through the intervention of Austria, which sent troops to Italy, that the movement was crushed and the Neapolitan constitution suppressed. The Carbonari, however, secretly continued their agitation against Austria and the governments in friendly connection with it. They formed, even in Rome, a vendita, published in the press the most violent accusations against the lawful rulers, and won over to their cause members of deposed sovereign families, among whom was Prince Louis, later Napoleon III. Pope Pius VII issued a general condemnation of the secret society of the Carbonari, 13 September, 1821. 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, as in Italy, was divided into ventes. Members were especially numerous in Paris, where the society was formed in 1821 by three young men named Bazard, Buchez, and Flotard. 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 as a centre the Charbonnerie spread rapidly through the country, and by the end of the year 1821 it was the cause of several mutinies among the troops. The movement lost its importance after several conspirators had been executed, especially as quarrels broke out among the leaders. The Charbonnerie took part in the Revolution of July, 1830; after the fall of the Bourbons, however, its influence rapidly declined. After this a Charbonnerie démocratique was formed among the French Republicans, the aim of which was to obtain a republican constitution for the country; however, 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.
APA citation. (1908). Carbonari. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03330c.htm
MLA citation. "Carbonari." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03330c.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Gerald M. Knight.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.
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