The membership was separated into two classes—apprentice and master. There were two ways to become a master, through serving as an apprentice for at least six months or by being a Freemason on entry. Their initiation rituals were structured around the trade of charcoal-selling, hence their name.
They began by resisting the French occupiers, notably Joachim Murat, the Bonapartist King of Naples. However once the wars ended, they became a nationalist organisation with a marked anti-Austrian tendency and were instrumental in organising revolution in Italy in 1820–1821 and 1831. The 1820 revolution began in Naples against King Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies, who was forced to make concessions and promise a constitutional monarchy. This success inspired Carbonari in the north of Italy to revolt too. In 1821, the Kingdom of Sardinia obtained a constitutional monarchy as a result of Carbonari actions. However, the Holy Alliance would not tolerate this state of affairs and in February, 1821, sent an army to crush the revolution in Naples. The King of Sardinia also called for Austrian intervention. Faced with an enemy overwhelmingly superior in number, the Carbonari revolts collapsed and their leaders fled into exile. In 1830, Carbonari took part in the July Revolution in France. This gave them hope that a successful revolution might be staged in Italy. A bid in Modena was an outright failure, but in February 1831, several cities in the Papal States rose up and flew the Carbonari tricolour. A volunteer force marched on Rome but was destroyed by Austrian troops who had intervened at the request of Pope Gregory XVI After the failed uprisings of 1831, the governments of the Italian states cracked down on the Carbonari, who now virtually ceased to exist. The more astute members realised they could never take on the Austrian army in open battle and joined a new movement, Giovane Italia ("Young Italy") led by Mazzini.
The Carbonari (Carbonária) was first founded in Portugal in 1822 but was soon disbanded. It was founded again in 1896 by Artur Augusto Duarte da Luz de Almeida. This organization was active in efforts to educate the people and was involved in various antimonarchist conspirations. Most notably, Carbonari members were active in the murder of King Carlos I of Portugal and his heir, Prince Luís Filipe, Duke of Braganza in 1908. Carbonari members also played a part in the republican revolution of October 5, 1910
The carbonari are also mentioned briefly in the book "Ressurection Men",by T. K. Welsh, where the main character's father is a carbonari.