Green Room

The history behind the Vatican’s smoke signals

posted at 10:15 am on March 12, 2013 by

It’s not as cryptic as one would think, and it’s not as old, either.  In fact, the practice only goes back less than 150 years — and it started with il Risorgimento, the military unification of Italy.  St. Michael Society published a 2005 grad study from Notre Dame that explains the history:

Actually, Italy’s unfortunate history as a battleground for various invasions and eventual unification led to smoke being used to announce the new pope. In 1870, forces 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. Ambrogio Piazzoni explains: “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.” …

As stated earlier, the Catholic Church is steeped in tradition. As so, this tradition of using smoke signals to announce the election of a new pope stuck. Since the process is clothed in intense secrecy and subject to political ramifications, Pius X decreed that once the votes had been counted, they would be burned to avoid outside influence and scrutiny.

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 (Miami Herald, 4/18/05). After Pope Pius X, who was elected in 1903 and died in 1914, declared that the ballots would be burned to preserve secrecy, 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.

So what was first a protest and then a practical adjustment has quickly turned into tradition, and one that has the Vatican enthused enough to install this in the Sistine Chapel:


That’s the stove at the other end of that chimney peeking out above the rooftops that we’ll be watching for the next few days.  I took the picture on my tour of the Sistine Chapel on Saturday.

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Thanks for these updates Ed, I find it all very fascinating.

Alinsky on March 12, 2013 at 10:22 AM

That stove looks like an appliance that every basement of every home in our subdivision had when I was a kid. They were gas fired incinerators used for burning paper products to save the planet. Now 50 years later they burn the papal ballots. Very interesting.

fourdeucer on March 12, 2013 at 10:28 AM

Shouldn’t there be just one button on that panel — black or white?

unclesmrgol on March 12, 2013 at 10:32 AM

I recall that there always seems to be confusion over the color of the smoke. What do they add to the fire to try to get the desired color?

RDH on March 12, 2013 at 10:34 AM

Found it here

RDH on March 12, 2013 at 10:48 AM

Nice, Ed. I was wondering about this.

trigon on March 12, 2013 at 10:54 AM

Very interesting history, Ed. I had thought that the whole thing with the black and white smoke was some ancient ritual. I didn’t realize that is only from fairly recent history. I learn something new everyday.

simkeith on March 12, 2013 at 11:06 AM

I recall that there always seems to be confusion over the color of the smoke.

RDH on March 12, 2013 at 10:34 AM

Yep! Armed Forces Radio kept trying to get the “scoop” on who would rise after the death of Pope Paul VI. They broadcast so many “The smoke–I believe it’s white!!” bulletins that, like weary villagers in the Boy Who Cried Wolf, we working in the Motor Pool made various scoffing noises until the moment it was announced that Pope John Paul II had stepped out onto the balcony.

Ladysmith CulchaVulcha on March 12, 2013 at 11:15 AM

Ed: thx for the updates!!

Khun Joe on March 12, 2013 at 11:20 AM

Thanks, Ed! This is very interesting.

Alana on March 12, 2013 at 2:13 PM