Italian revolutionary and secret society leader, 1761–1837. Born at Pisa to an aristocratic family, Buonarroti spent his childhood in patrician circles, serving as a page at the court of the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1773 and becoming a cavalier in the Order of St Stephen, a military order in Tuscany, in his teen years. A headstrong and temperamental boy, he ran away to Marseilles in 1780 and spent a short time in the French army, before officials of the Grand Duke arranged to have him sent home. His rebellious streak soon landed him in radical circles; in 1786 he was initiated as a Freemason, in a lodge that had been under Illuminati control until the break-up of the order two years previously. See Bavarian Illuminati.

That same year the authorities raided his house and discovered seditious books. He escaped with a warning, but by 1789 Buonarroti’s political activities made Tuscany too hot to hold him and he went to Corsica, where he immediately took an active role in revolutionary agitation there. In 1791 he was chased off the island by an angry Catholic mob, but returned within a month and plunged back into local politics. Visits to Paris and meetings with Robespierre brought him into the midst of the French revolutionary government, and when France invaded Italy, Buonarroti was posted to the town of Oneglia as its administrator. There he became the focus of a network of Italian exiles who wanted to copy the French revolutionary experiment in Italy. See French Revolution.

With the fall of Robespierre’s government and the establishment of the more moderate Directory in the Thermidor coup d’etat of 1794, Buonarroti lost his support in Paris; in March 1795 he was recalled to the French capital and imprisoned for redistributing wealth from landowners to peasants in Oneglia. While in prison he met François “Gracchus” Babeuf, another ambitious radical. When they were released in October 1795, they plunged into politics, organizing the Societé du Panthéon (Society of the Pantheon) to spread egalitarian ideas and oppose the Directory’s policies. When the Society was suppressed by police in February the following year, its most committed members formed a revolutionary secret society, the Conspiracy of Equals. See Babeuf, François “Gracchus”; Conspiracy of Equals.

The mass arrests that followed the failure of the Conspiracy landed Buonarroti in jail again, where he remained until 1806. While in prison he renewed contacts with his Italian associates, and managed to become a member of another secret society, the Philadelphes. On his release he moved to Geneva, where he supported himself by teaching music; he resumed his revolutionary activities, starting a Philadelphe group in the local Masonic lodge and planning a coup against Napoleon’s government. He also organized another secret society, the Sublimes Maîtres Parfaits or Sublime Perfect Masters, which went on to become the first international political secret society of the nineteenth century. A police informant leaked news of the Philadelphe plot, but the authorities in Paris decided to bide their time, and merely ordered Buonarroti to leave Geneva. See Philadelphes; Sublime Perfect Masters.

Buonarroti spent the rest of Napoleon’s reign at Grenoble, returning to Geneva at the Restoration. There, working through the Sublime Perfect Masters, he plotted a continent-wide revolution to establish republican governments and abolish private property. His efforts had some influence on the widespread risings of 1820–22. A subordinate, Alexandre Andryane, was arrested in Milan in 1822 with compromising papers, and details soon were circulated among European police officials and the general public, where they sparked a flurry of anti-secret society literature.

While Buonarroti’s secret society was all but destroyed by the revelations, and Buonarroti himself was driven out of Switzerland, he gained a continent-wide reputation as the conspirator’s conspirator. He went to Brussels, where he attracted a circle of young radicals who studied the art of conspiracy with him. He relaunched the Sublime Perfect Masters as Le Monde (The World), and published a book on the French Revolution and the conspiracies that followed it, Conspiration pour l’Egalité (Conspiracy for Equality, 1828), which became the Bible of liberal secret societies all through the nineteenth century.

In 1830, when a new revolt broke out in France, he moved to Paris, where he spent his final years pursuing his lifelong dream of revolution. In 1832 he created a new international secret society, the Charbonnerie Réformée or Reformed Carbonarism, and expanded it into the Charbonnerie Démocratique Universelle or Universal Democratic Carbonarism in 1833. He died in 1837, surrounded by friends and admirers. See Carbonari.


The Element Encyclopedia of Secret Societies : the ultimate a-z of ancient mysteries, lost civilizations and forgotten wisdom written by John Michael Greer – © John Michael Greer 2006