A recent letter to the editor in
il Mattino expresses outrage at the fact
that city fathers of Ottaviano, near Naples, want
to open a Camorra museum. ("Camorra" is
the Naples Mafia.) What are they supposed to
display, the writer asks—photos of blood-stained
victims? Bullet-proof vests? A list of all the
poor people who still have no idea what has
happened to their family members? Is this the kind
of phony romantic rubbish you want to impress upon
the minds of young people who visit such a museum?
The politicians, he says, have confused the "Camorra"
with the "Carbonari", indeed another
secret society, but one of the most important
movements in the history of modern Italy.
When the Neapolitan Republic fell in 1799, absolutism returned to the Kingdom of Naples with a vengeance. The restored Bourbon monarchy punished the "traitors" severely and infamously and went about 18th-century business-as-usual in the new 19th century. The monarchy was again overthrown in 1806 by Napoleon, who installed his relatives as king—first, his brother and then his brother-in-law, Gioacchino Murat.
10-year French rule was, by most accounts, an
improvement over the Bourbon monarchy, but it was
still an absolute monarchy, held in place by the
French. It is during this period that liberal
ideas of representative government and eventual
freedom from foreign rule went into hiding in the
form of the "carbonari", a secret society whose
goal was to obtain constitutional liberties for
When king Ferdinand returned to the throne in 1815, his kingdom was a nest of carbonari—active and, in some case, armed cells of people from all walks of life—military officers, landlords, nobility, priests, and peasants. They took the name "carbonari" from the trade of charcoal-burning, practiced in Calabria, Abruzzi and Campania. They were divided into Masonic-type lodges and had typically secret rituals, titles, in-group signs of recognition, and an entire vocabulary—a code—taken from the charcoal trade. Their flag was red, white and black, a banner that remained the symbol of liberal revolution in Italy until replaced by red, white and green in 1831, colors still used today on the Italian national flag. After the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, they grew in strength and were the focal point of the 1820 revolution that for a time, at least, succeeded in wringing a constitution out of the autocratic Bourbon ruler, Ferdinand I.
The uprising of
1820 in Naples seemed successful at first. In
spite of ruthless measures to eliminate the secret
society, Ferdinand was faced with the fact that
his own armed forces were honeycombed with carbonari.
In July 1820 a military mutiny broke out at
Caserta and the king was forced into conceding a
constitution for his kingdom, one modeled on the
single-chamber body of the Spanish constitution of
1812, itself the product of a revolution.
openly hostile to the state and forcing
constitutions on kings was not what the Congress
of Vienna had had in mind in 1815 when it ended
the Napoleonic interlude by restoring the old
order in Europe. A new Congress was convened in
Troppau in 1820 to deal with the crisis. It gave
the King of Naples the authority to seek aid from
Austria. He left Naples after swearing an oath to
the constitution, hastened to the Austria of his
old Hapsburg in-laws (his first wife Caroline was a
daughter of the empress Maria Theresa) and
returned with a 50,000-man army to put down the
rebellion. They were met by a Neapolitan force of
8,000, which they defeated at Rieti on March 7,
1821. A few days later the King returned to Naples
in triumph—at the head of an Austrian army. He
dismissed parliament and tore up the constitution.
The inevitable trials of "traitors" ensued,
followed by the inevitable executions shortly
thereafter. It is from this date that a constant
foreign presence in Naples—either the Austrian
army or Swiss mercenaries—was necessary to support
what had become the last bastion of absolutism in
During the 1830s, carbonarist activity spread to Piedmont, Lombardy, Parma, Modena, Romagna and the Papal States. It even attracted foreigners who had taken up the cause of Italian unity: Lord Byron, for one. It is for this identification with the cause of national unity that the carbonari are historically seen as the forerunners of the Risorgimento, the mid-19th-century movement to unify Italy, generally seen as starting in earnest with the revolution of 1848.
revolution of 1820 to the fall of the Kingdom of
Naples in 1860, the Bourbon rulers proved
singularly inept at dealing with the forces of
liberalism other than through outright
suppression. Bourbon absolutism held the line in
1821, again in the great revolution of 1848, and
was only undone in 1860 when the kingdom fell to
the forces of Giuseppe