In recent years secret societies have gained cachet with the general public. From Yale’s Skull and Bones to the Freemasons and the Knights Templar, movies and literature have been rife with these groups. Taking into account Italy’s rich and varied history it is not a surprise that the country has been home to many secret societies, some of which are still in activity.
In the course of centuries political, military, religious and esoteric movements have all launched underground groups in the country. Let’s not forget that Aleister Crowley, who many consider the father of modern magic, spent many years practicing his art in Italy. Among the countless secret societies that have existed during Italy’s history, only two can claim with undisputed evidence to have had an effect on Italian history: the carboneria and freemasonry.
Italian Secret Organizations: Carboneria
Some will claim that the Freemasons have influenced history in Italy since Roman times, but concrete evidence points to the carboneria as being the first extremely influential secret society in modern Italy. The Carbonari were a number of secret groups that were spread across Europe in the early 19th century. They all had patriotic and liberal goals and proclaimed themselves to be republican and anticlerical. Even if there were Carbonari cells in Italy, France and Portugal with common declarations and contacts among them, they were never able to coordinate a common action. Some Carbonari from other countries came to the aid of their brethren during the various revolutions that sparked across Europe in the first half of the 1800s, but they were moved more by a sense of brotherhood than from a real strategy.
The Carboneria movement in Italy began its actions in the southern part of the country, in the Kingdom of Naples, where the society opposed the French invaders. After the Napoleonic Wars they shifted their aim against the Austro-Hungarian Empire that occupied the northern regions of Italy and was seen as the real obstacle to a unified Italy. A number of Carbonari lead revolts in Italy in 1820 and 1821 with limited success. The Kingdom of Sardinia proclaimed itself a constitutional monarchy after the Carbonari revolts in Piedmont and this adoption of libertarian reforms made many patriots regard Sardinia as the only force in Italy able to claim the divided territories and create a single Italian state.
The success obtained in the northern and southern revolts made the Carbonari think that they could launch in Italy a revolution like the one that collapsed the French monarchy a few decades before. The Holy Alliance — the coalition formed by Russia, Austria and Prussia — would not tolerate the revolts in northern Italy and sent an army to deal with the rebels, who were forced to surrender. A decade later Carbonari left their hiding places and staged another round of revolutions in France and Italy. In 1831 the Carbonari fuelled many revolts in central and southern Italy and several cities in the Papal States declared independence from the Pope’s rule. Austrian troops descended into Italy to reclaim the rebel cities and crush the revolutions.
The Carboneria movement failed to spark the popular uprising that it hoped for and was destroyed. But various other political movements inherited its goals and, understanding that winning an open war against the Austrian Empire was impossible, started to spin a hidden political web that 30 years later reached the goal of unifying Italy.
Italian Secret Organizations: Massoneria / Masonry
Freemasonry would have a historical role in Italian history a century later, thanks to the infamous actions of the Propaganda Due or the P2 Lodge. The P2 Lodge was a Masonic Lodge that operated within the rules of Italian Grande Oriente from its foundation in 1945 up to its disbanding in 1976. From then on it continued its operations in secret until 1981. In these years the lodge and its leader Licio Gelli were at the center of a complex web of political and criminal intrigue.
The Loggia P2 and its members were involved in the Tangentopoli corruption scandal, in the bankrupting of the Vatican bank Banco Ambrosiano, the homicides of Mino Pecorelli and Roberto Calvi, as well as many more obscure chapters of Italian recent history. According to police findings, Licio Gelli was concocting a plan to overthrow the Italian government in a coup d’etat called Plan for Democratic Rebirth. The Lodge counted among its member powerful journalists, politicians, members of the military and businessmen. The former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was a P2 member.
When the secret activities of the P2 Lodge were uncovered by police, its member’s list was exposed and many of its secret ties to the criminal underground revealed. Licio Gelli was put on trial and found guilty of many charges. He now lives under arrest in his Tuscan villa, from where, apparently, he keeps a close eye on the current Italian events. It has been reported that Gelli says that his old P2 brother Berlusconi is currently implementing the Plan for Democratic Rebirth, proof that secret societies in Italy are still shaping history.