The Italian Almanac
Italian News - April 20
In an age of email and mass media, pouring smoke out of the Sistine Chapel chimney to announce the election of a new pope seems as ancient a Catholic tradition as Latin liturgy and glowing vestments. But in terms of the Church's 2,000-year history, the smoke signals are a new kid on the block. "Until late last century, they would just tell the town criers who would run through the city spreading the news that there was a new pope," said Vatican historian Ambrogio Piazzoni. "The people would then rush to St. Peter's and wait for the pope to come out onto the balcony for his first address."
All that changed in 1870 when troops fighting to unify Italy took Rome, reducing the Church's land mass from the once sprawling Papal States to what is now known as Vatican City. Indignant at the ignominy inflicted, the next pope to be elected, Leo XIII, snubbed the Italians and rather than give his inaugural blessing from the front of St. Peter's Basilica, appeared on a loggia inside the Vatican.
"They felt they were prisoners of Italy and didn't want to recognise 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," Piazzoni said.
It gained a new purpose when Pius X decreed that ballots should be destroyed to avoid cardinals' votes being scrutinised by outside political forces seeking to sway the election. What better way to destroy them than to burn them? So when cardinals met in 1914 to elect Benedict XV, they changed the system and set up a two-colour communication code. Wet straw was added to the ballot sheets when the voting session failed to produce a pope, turning the smoke black. When the pope was chosen, the ballots went in the furnace alone and white smoke poured out of the chimney to announce the good news.