Black smoke billowed from the Sistine Chapel for a second day on Wednesday after a secret conclave of cardinals held two more inconclusive votes for a new pope to lead the troubled Roman Catholic Church.
Following an initial split ballot when they were first shut away amid the chapel's Renaissance splendour on Tuesday evening, the 115 cardinal electors held a first full day of deliberations but many Vatican watchers expected the waiting to go on.
Once a new pontiff is elected, white smoke will rise from the makeshift chimney in the roof and the bells of St. Peter's Basilica will ring. But for the time being, none of the cardinals has garnered the two-thirds majority required.
Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi denied suggestions of any splits between the cardinals in the run-up to the conclave and said the election was proceeding normally.
"There is no reason to talk of divisions ... or particular conflict," he told reporters. "What we have is a dynamic to find a consensus and we will see how long this takes."
The first wisps to rise from the Sistine chimney before lunch on Wednesday stirred momentary hope among excited crowds braving incessant rain in St. Peter's Square, before subsequent billows of black smoke spread disappointment - though few had expected a decision less than 24 hours after the conclave began.
"You can't expect a microwave pope. It's a process. These men are trying carefully to work out who should be the next to lead them," 34-year-old American artist and missionary Adrian Britton told Reuters in the vast Roman square. "I am kind of happy it wasn't white smoke because I just showed up."
Standing among the hundreds of spectators sheltering under umbrellas, Austrian student Daniela Weber, 25, said: "I am a bit disappointed because we wanted to see the white smoke, and we're only here for one more day."
The cardinals face a tough task in finding a leader capable of overcoming crises caused by priestly child abuse and a leak of secret papal documents that uncovered corruption and rivalry inside the Church government or Curia.
The wave of problems are thought to have contributed to Pope Benedict's decision in February to become the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.
With several leading candidates, or "papabili", the cardinals are expected to need several ballots to reach a decision on who will lead the world's 1.2 billion Roman Catholics, with many experts predicting white smoke on Thursday.
"A new pope by tomorrow," was the headline in Wednesday's La Stampa newspaper after days of feverish speculation about the most likely new pontiff in Italian media.
Only one man since the start of the 20th century, Pius XII in 1939, was elected within three ballots, with seven ballots on average required over the last nine conclaves. Benedict was clear frontrunner in 2005 and elected after only four ballots.
Pilgrims and tourists began arriving in St. Peter's Square early in the day, hoping to get a glimpse of history by spotting white smoke.
"It's a wonderful time, a historical moment," said Monsignor Ronny Jenkins, General Secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It's very unique. It's an incredible moment, but we want the rain to go away," he added with a laugh.
The cardinals were shut inside for the secret election under Michelangelo's luminous frescos on Tuesday after a day of religious pomp and prayer to prepare for the task.
The initial inconclusive vote about two hours later was seen as a way of filtering the choice down to frontrunners for discussions among the supporters of the various papabili in the following days.
No hint is expected to emerge before the pope is chosen. The Vatican has taken precautions, including electronic jamming devices, to prevent any leaks from inside the conclave.
The new pope will take up a burden that Benedict declared in February was beyond his physical capabilities.
Apart from an child abuse scandals and the "Vatileaks" case, the Church has been shaken by rivalry from other churches, the advance of secularism, especially in its European heartland, and problems in the running the Vatican bank.
The former head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony, is attending the conclave despite calls for him to stay away because of a sex abuse case that led to his censure by his successor Archbishop Jose Gomez in January. He was stripped of all public and administrative duties as punishment.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the victims in four sex abuse cases said the diocese, Mahony and an ex-priest had agreed to pay nearly $10 -million to settle. Mahony was accused of helping a confessed paedophile priest escape prosecution.