Did you know: Vatican smoke signals were first made to protest Italy?

While 115 cardinals remain sequestered in the Vatican until they elect the Church's 266th pontiff, faithful gathered outside at St. Peter's Square have their eyes fixed on a two-meter (six-foot) high chimney fixed atop the Sistine Chapel waiting for white smoke to billow out of the chimney, signalling the election of a new Pope.

But what's the idea behind white smoke and black smoke?

Well, the Catholic Church is steeped in tradition. But the practice only goes back less than 150 years — and it started with il Risorgimento, the military unification of Italy, according to a post on St Michael Society.

Black smoke billows from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel in Vatican. AP

Black smoke billows from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel in Vatican. AP

With Italy often used as a battleground in history, those trying to unify Italy captured Rome and scaled down the Papal States to what is known as Vatican City today.

An offended Pope Leo XII, the next pope to be elected after the battle, decided to snub the Italians and gave his papal address inside the Vatican instead of on the balcony of St. Peter’s.

St. Michael Society quotes Ambrogio Piazzoni: "They felt they were prisoners of Italy and didn’t want to recognize the violence suffered. But they had to tell the world it had a new pope so they invented this system of lighting a fire and letting the smoke speak."

The tradition to use these signals to announce the election of a new pope stuck on.

Further on, Pope Pius X, elected in 1903 and died in 1914, decided that once the votes had been counted it had to be burned inorder to maintain secrecy and also prevent external forces from interfering in the process.

The white smoke first appeared in 1914 with the election of Pope Benedict XV when the cardinals set up the white/black smoke color scheme.

The cardinals in 1914 decided that black smoke would signal an inconclusive conclave vote and white smoke would announce the good news of the election of a new pope.

In the past, counted ballots went into just one iron stove along with damp wood chips or wet clumps of straw to create black smoke if the vote didn't yield a pope.

But the smoke signal system has been unreliable, triggering nervous cries of "It's white" and emphatic choruses of "No, it's black!" in the various tongues of the faithful and curious who flock to St. Peter's Square for a glimpse of the chimney.

In 1978 cardinals solved this problem, for the most part, by substituting a small vial of chemicals for the wet or dry straw in order to produce the right color of smoke.

Pope John Paul II was not quite convinced of this solution and in 1996, among other changes to the conclave, added the decree that the Vatican bells would ring when the new pope had been chosen.

In 2005, for the conclave that made Benedict pope, the Vatican tried something different: A second stove was installed that produces smoke from a chemical compound whipped up by the Vatican's own technicians. The smoke from the burned ballots from the first stove and the colored smoke from the second stove were funneled up one pipe that leads to the chimney and the outside world.

In following the conclave, it will be wise not just to keep your eyes open, but your ears as well: The bells of St. Peter's Basilica will be set ringing when a new pope has been chosen.

With inputs from Associated Press

Updated Date: Mar 13, 2013 18:14 PM

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