Vatican City - The secret conclave to elect a new pope once Pope Benedict XVI has resigned could be held earlier than originally planned to allow the future pontiff to prepare for Easter, sources said Friday.

Benedict steps down on February 28 and the vote for the top job may begin on March 10, sources told Rome-based religious news agency I.Media.

Rules laid down by John Paul II stipulate that between 15 and 20 days must pass after the end of the pontificate before the conclave meets in the Sistine chapel under Michelangelo's famous ceiling frescoes to elect a new pope.

Officials faced with the exceptional situation of a papal resignation had initially said the 117 cardinals who will be choosing Benedict's successor would meet between March 15 and 20.

A clause in the constitution allows exceptions to the rules in the case of an agreement between the cardinals, who are already gathering at the Vatican.

Most are expected at a final audience with Benedict on February 28.

Once the former pontiff leaves the cardinals could vote to begin the conclave in the hope of installing a new pope by March 19, the feast day of St. Joseph, patron saint and protector of the Catholic Church.

The director of the Vatican Museums, Antonio Paolucci, told Ansa news agency Friday that the Sistine Chapel would remain open to tourists until February 28, after which it would depend on the date chosen for the start of the conclave. - Sapa-AFP