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How HBO’s The Young Pope recreated Vatican City

Elaborate recreations of the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s help viewers believe in a pretend papacy.

Behind-the-scenes of HBO’s series The Young Pope
Behind-the-scenes of HBO’s series The Young Pope

It normally takes the best minds in set design to create a truly over-the-top, lavish interior. But when the project requires a set director to recreate the lavish interiors of Vatican City, home to some of Christendom’s most iconic and treasured artwork, it seems that even Hollywood needs to be a bit more humble and really do its homework.

The new HBO limited series Young Pope, a joint effort between the premium channel and European partners that explored the premise of an unlikely American pontiff (played by Jude Law), takes viewers deep inside Vatican walls. But due to the church’s ban on filming within this hallowed ground, and no direct contact with the church to confirm details, members of the crew, such as production designer Ludovica Ferrario, had to get creative.

While past film and television projects took a more high-tech approach to creating the Pontiff’s home—for Dan Brown adaptation Angels and Demons filmmakers posed as tourists, took photos, and digitally recreated the Vatican—Ferrario and his colleagues did extensive research, building detailed replicas of priceless artwork and iconic interiors, and eventually building sets in Rome’s famed Cinecittà Studios, which has hosted production from La Dolve Vita and Cleopatra to Life Aquatic. In an email interview, Ferrario discussed the challenges of remaking some of the Western world’s most priceless artifacts and rebuilding the Sistine Chapel.

HBO’s The Young Pope
A recreation of the Sistine Chapel, with Michelangelo’s famous The Last Judgment fresco against the back wall.

How did you recreate the interiors and exteriors of the Vatican, especially considering the church's ban against filming inside Vatican walls? Was there any communication with the church in terms of checking facts and making sure sets were accurate?

“In retrospect, I can confirm that not shooting in the Vatican was a wonderful experience, something that turned a refusal into an opportunity. The challenge, already at the reading stage, was staggering; every scene implied a remarkable visual commitment.”

“Our biggest bet was creating a framework of credibility for the audience. I must say that the opportunity lay precisely in this playing within the confines of a balance between verisimilitude and philology. Many environments linked to the Vatican iconography were reconstructed, while many other spaces were reinvented in creating the world of our Pope. We were lucky enough to have a consultant who could confirm the likeness to the original environments and who followed us on the set for an appropriate use and staging of the props.”

“Having no direct access to the Vatican, we could not make the correct measurements and this implied long research and documentation work and, where it was impossible to find explicative drawings, a reconstruction based on footage and images was necessary to help us redesign and plan the environments in detail.”

Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII in HBO’s The Young Pope
Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII
Gianni Fiorito: HBO

What were some of the more difficult rooms, spaces, and locations to recreate?

“The most demanding constructions were of course those closer to the collective imagination, such as the Sistine Chapel, the façades of St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Mark’s in Venice (from which the Pope pronounces his speeches) and the papal library (the study where most of his meetings take place and a crucial environment in the story). All these we reconstructed at Cinecittà Studios, not to mention the walkway and flooring of St. Peter’s and of the chapel with Michelangelo’s Pietà.”

What was it like shooting interior shots in Cinecittà Studios?

“The most conspicuous reconstruction took place in Cinecittà, where we recreated both the façade of Saint Peter’s and a portion of the Loggia dei Cavalli of St Mark’s basilica in Venice. That job that took around a month and a half.”

“In studio, we also reconstructed the Sistine Chapel (in full scale, with a development in height up to the first order of the cornice on the long sides and up to a height of 10 meters on the short sides) including the portal to the Regal Room. Construction, implementation and painting took around two months.”

“The workers did an incredible job: draftsmen, builders, plasterers and painters brought the environment to life in every minor detail. The choice of materials was also important, the use of gold leaf to make the printed wall apparatus come alive, to then be coated with patina, as was the work carried out to reproduce the flooring.”

A recreation of the famous Pieta statue in Saint Peter’s Basilica in HBO’s The Young Pope
A recreation of the famous Pieta statue in Saint Peter’s Basilica
Gianni Fiorito: HBO

What kind of research was involved in recreating these places? Did you take any liberties with any of the locations?

“Research was long and meticulous, guided by the remarkable opportunity given by director Paolo Sorrentino’s screenplay to investigate so many aspects of the world of the Vatican, from the smallest to the largest scale.”

“First, there was a demanding documentation work to be carried out, which would allow us to move, where required, as philologically as possible. A documentation that, not having access to any Vatican environment and not having the possibility of carrying out any measurements, became crucial to developing and fully exploring the planning phase. In some cases, as for the papal library/study, it was extremely useful for us to study video recordings of meetings with heads of government showing glimpses and details of the environment for which we had no other type of documentation.”

What was your favorite place to film for this series, and why?

“Not being able to film in the Vatican opened an incredible location hunt!”

“Each of these locations involved a story, a peculiarity, a challenge, a privilege and often demanding endeavors, but undoubtedly, shooting in Santi Luca e Martina (a church in Rome) remains one of my most cherished memories.”

“We filmed in this baroque church, one of the very few that authorize shooting, for two days. In the same place we could film the grave of the Pope before our Lenny Belardo as if we were just beneath the nave of Saint Peter’s. However, the choice was taken especially because of the opportunity to reconstruct on location (in the aisle and lateral chapel) a portion of Saint Peter’s and in particular the chapel with The Pietà by Michelangelo.”

Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII in HBO’s The Young Pope
Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII in HBO’s The Young Pope
Giani Fiorito: HBO

“Walking through the Roman Forum to reach the set in the early morning autumn light was unforgettable. A church and a place unique in the world, set between ancient Roman fragments and right in front of the Arch of Septimius Severus, which housed us to reconstruct scenographically one of Michelangelo’s greatest masterpieces!”

“Carrying out this reconstruction on location rather than in the studio not only gave us the sound of an authentic site, but also that particular rapport that only a sacred place can make you perceive, which is of great help to the mood of the shooting”.

“Because of this union between the beauty of the place in itself and because of the satisfaction of the scenography reconstructed inside it, for me this remains the set of which I’m fondest. Perhaps the experience here was as stimulating as the reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel in Cinecittà”.

Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII in HBO’s The Young Pope
Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII
Gianni Fiorito/HBO

How did you choose the villas used for exterior shots?

“The whole garden installation was reconstructed in several Rome locations. We shot at Villa Pamphili, Villa Medici, Villa Piccolomini, Villa Lante, at the Botanical Gardens, where we simulated the restoration of the Lourdes Cave, and in Olgiata for the Heliport scene. We tried to represent not only the more monumental parts consisting of Italian gardens, but also the wilder more natural aspects to describe the vastness of what makes up a large part of the Papal State.”