"A surging, seething, murmuring crowd of beings that are human only in name, for to the eye and ear they seem naught but savage creatures, animated by vile passions and by the lust of vengeance and of hate."
Ah, the opening lines from Baroness Orczy's tale of heroic English aristocrat Sir Percy Blakeney, a rich and useless featherhead during the day, but who ventures forth at night to cross the Channel and save innocent bluebloods from the French Revolution and Lady Guillotine. The only ones to know his true identity are members of his secret society, the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. (If that sounds like Batman--what can I say? The book is from 1905 and is often cited as the forerunner of modern "masked avenger"-type fiction: Zorro, Batman, The Lone Ranger, etc.)
Secret Societies. What follows is not about secret societies, in general. I know nothing, for example, about Freemasonry, other than that 15 Freemasons control the world from their secret mountain cave high in the Himalayas, Andes, or Alps (no one knows). Their cave is adjacent to another cave from which 15 Jewish bankers control the world, and just down the pike from a small lodge where 15 Illuminati control the world. They all have secret handshakes and decoder rings, and they know who really killed JFK. On weekends they all get together for brewskis and to write next week's episode of that piece of TV drivel called Alias.
This is not even about the most famous secret society on the Italian peninsula of the early 1800s, the Carbonari (see the encyclopedia index for a separate entry on that society), the revolutionary forerunner of the Italian risorgimento and the stalking horse for the "-isms" that characterize the nineteenth century: egalitarianism, republicanism, socialism, and communism. What follows is about other secret societies in southern Italy in the few years following the Congress of Vienna, which in 1815 restored "legitimate" power in Europe after Napoleon was done.
In southern Italy, in spite of the historical claim to legitimacy of the restored Bourbon monarchy, the restored noble classes were well aware of the schemings of revolutionary and liberal secret societies such as the Carbonari and set out to combat them with their own counter-revolutionary secret societies--real life versions of the Scarlet Pimpernel, defenders of the old order of nations based on crowned heads and Church. There were three prominent anti-liberal secret societies: the "concistoriali", the "sanfedisti", and the "calderai".
The "Concistoriali". Named for "consistory," the ecclesiastical senate in Roman Catholicism, in which the Pope presides over the body of cardinals and deliberates the affairs of the church. The society was powerful and, as the name indicates, involved a number of Catholic clergy, who--if not members themselves--at least knew of the existence of the society and protected it. Some sources claim that even Pope Pius VII was involved with the group, and perhaps even Victor Emanuel I, the father of the future first king of united Italy. The group was founded in 1815 in the Vatican States. Besides combating pan-Italian liberalism, the group was specifically concerned with how the Italian peninsula was to remain divided--that is, what monarchs would get what territory. For example, it favored expanding the Vatican States to include Tuscany.
The "Sanfedisti" were named for Cardinal Ruffo's Army of the Holy Faith, which retook the Kingdom of Naples from republican forces in 1799. The society was founded in 1818 and operated freely in the regions of Romagna and The Marches until as late as 1850. If one believes their own propaganda, the Sanfedisti were a particularly bloodthirsty group of counter-revolutionaries. They urged (in one of their pamphlets) "killing all who are even suspected of sympathy towards the infamous sect of liberalism, without regard to their origins, nation, sex, rank, fortune or faith, and without pity even in the face of the cries of infants and the pleas of the aged." (If you substitute "aristocratism" for "liberalism," that sounds an awful lot like the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. Masked Avenging with a vengeance, I suppose, but not exactly the Scarlet Pimpernel.)
The "Calderai" (Boiler Makers) was a group founded by Antonio Capece Minutolo (illustration on first page and top right), Duke of Canosa and member of the royal government of the Kingdom of Naples before it was overthrown by the republicans and the French in 1799. His was one of the oldest noble families in the kingdom. He was a true aristocrat, one of those who formed what was called in France the "second estate," an intermediate noble class that (potentially) served to curb absolutism on the part of the monarch. As such, Minutolo did not follow his king into exile in 1799, but stayed behind and tried to broker a deal with the French to set up an ill- defined "aristocratic republic." For his efforts, he was sentenced to five years in prison for insubordination by the Bourbons when they returned a few months later. He was released early and found favor once again with his King, Ferdinand I, and was made governor of the islands of Ponza, Ventotene and Capri. When the French invaded again in 1806 he directed anti-French resistance against the decade-long Bonapartist kingdom of Murat.
After the second restoration (1815), Minutolo became the chief of police for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, an extremely powerful position. He then founded his Calderai. The name is said to derive from the fact that a large number of boiler-makers from Palermo (who had fled the island of Sicily for Naples) were members, using as their symbol a boiler shown burning charcoal (carbone). Since the Carbonari (charcoal makers) were on the other side of the ideological divide, "burning charcoal" can be read as "destroying the enemy." Minutolo filled the group--according to his detractors--with the dregs of prison, released for the express purpose of continuing their murderous ways in the name of an ideology--protecting "legitimism"--the monarch and the church. Minutolo went to great ends to deny that accusation in a book he wrote in 1836, shortly before his death. It is true, however, that the society was so violent that even the Bourbon monarch outlawed it and dismissed Minutolo as police chief in 1821.
In fairness, Minutolo was an educated and eloquent spokesman for the old order. He wrote passionately on what he felt was the decadence of the monarchy due to absolutism, a tendency that was destroying the traditional relationships of monarchy, aristocracy, nation and church. And he was not a hypocrite; he put his own fortune into organizing resistance against liberalism and the two French invasions of Naples. He was a master propagandist and urged the use of satire as a tool against liberalism. He was the author an anti-liberal play entitled The Isle of Thieves, or The Savage Constitution. He died in 1838. By that time, the last successful stand of absolutism in Italy--the suppression of the revolutions of 1848-- was still a bit in the future, but Minutolo no doubt saw the handwriting on the wall. The only societies with a future were the revolutionary ones, those advocating a united Italy, and they would not remain secret much longer.