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Papal Vote - Sistine Chapel Conclave Chimney Smoke

The only way to find out when the new Pope is elected is by watching the Sistine Chapel chimney.

Temporary scaffolding holds up the flume inside the chapel - two furnaces are used - one has a special attachment to ignite a black or white smoke cartridge.

The fist vote on the 18th of April 2005 was initially thought to have been successful - until dense black smoke began to issue from the chimney.

Responding to Pope John Paul II's request, the Vatican rang bells in addition to sending up white smoke to signal the election of his successor in 2005.

Black smoke means no decision has been made. Normally the vote takes around 5 days, but it did once take 3 years. It was also a tradition not to give the voting cardinals anything to eat, so that they would hurry up with their decision. They also used to sleep on the floor of the chapel.

One of the most famous aspects of the papal-election process is how the results of a ballot are announced to the world. The ballots are counted and bound together, then burned in a special temporary oven in the Sistine Chapel, with the smoke escaping through a chimney visible from St. Peter's Square. The ballots from an unsuccessful vote are burned along with a chemical compound in order to produce black smoke, or "fumata nera." (Traditionally wet straw was used to help create the black smoke, but a number of "false alarms" in past conclaves have brought about this concession to modern chemistry.) When a vote is successful, the ballots are burned alone, sending white smoke ("fumata bianca") through the chimney and announcing to the world the election of a new Pope.

These two photos, taken on 30th March 2005, show the Sistine Chapel without a chimney

  • 115 Cardinals assemble
  • Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel walls and ceiling nearly 500 years ago
  • Black smoke means a vote has failed to produce a pope
  • White smoke means the cardinals have come to agreement
  • On October 26, 1958 the smoke was grey and caused confusion - twice
  • Black smoke bombs were used to remedy the situation
  • Some of the smoke backed into the room, making the cardinals complain
  • Smoke signals have been used continuously at least since 1878
  • There is little record of colour confusion until the 1958 conclave
  • In 1963 they switched to Italian army flares producing black and white smoke
  • In the first of two 1978 conclaves, they experimented with chemical additives, but the smoke came out gray when John Paul I was elected and was unpleasant inside the chapel
  • Two months later, after John Paul I's death prompted another conclave, the cardinals used army flares again. But the black smoke turned gray leading to confusion
  • Vatican Radio confirms the smoke colour and know because of a button installed in the Sistine Chapel after 1958. The Vatican has never commented on the reports, however.
  • It was announced last week that the Vatican was trying to make the colour more easily identifiable.
  • The bells of St. Peter's Basilica will ring in addition to the white smoke, to make the election of the pope clearer.

Pope Benedict XVI was elected on the 19th of April 2005 after 4 ballots.

White smoke issued from the chimney again on 13 March 2013 (above) when the conclave voted Pope Francis the new Pope on the 5th ballot.

During the 2013 conclave, the Vatican disclosed the chemicals used to colour the smoke:

  • Fumata nera (dark smoke - no decision):
    • Potassium perchlorate
    • Anthracene
    • Sulphur
  • Fumata bianca ( white smoke - pope chosen):
    • Potassium chlorate
    • Lactose / milk sugar
    • Colophony / pine rosin

These are some of the chemicals we use in our coloured smokes.

Create your own Papal Election simulation!

We can supply both white and black smoke cartridges suitable for papal elections, local elections, shareholder voting et al!

Details on our coloured smoke

Our low cost smoke pellets are available in white and cardinal red

The New York Times spoke to Pea Soup about the smoke in the 2013 papal conclave.

Papal Smoke 'Papi-Pack'

"The Conclave Combo"

   1 x Two Channel Pyrotechincs Firing Controller with batteries
   1 x pack of 90 second duration black smoke cartridges ('fumata nera' - no Pope yet)
   1 x pack of 90 second duration white smoke cartridges ('fumata bianca' - Pope chosen)
   2 x 10 metre pyro cables

...everything you need for successful 'conclave convenience'.

This allows for up to 7 non-decisive votes and a positive (white smoke) decisive conclusion which can run for over 10 minutes (concurrently) if required.

Contact us to order


Pea Soup Smoke Machines

Pea Soup is the biggest specialist online supplier of smoke machines. We have over 60 combined years of experience in the field of smoke machines for special effects, testing and training. Based in the UK, we export our products all over the world.

From testing the air flow inside chocolate making machines in Belgium to fire training in Germany for the US Army - from creating a light haze in a church for a BBC period drama to testing hundreds of smoke detectors on the world's largest oil platform, Pea Soup supply the smoke machines for your job.

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