The narrative of HBO’s “The Young Pope,” in which Jude Law plays aggressively despotic American pontiff Lenny Belardo, demands a suspension of belief. But the drama series’ striking visuals of the papal inner sanctum and exteriors of Vatican City seem pretty close to the real thing. However, they’re replicas — the Vatican denied producers’ requests to shoot there.
“When we were told we didn’t have access, we turned that into an opportunity,” says Ludovica Ferrario, the 42-year-old production designer on “The Young Pope,” a Sky, HBO, and Canal Plus original production. The 10-episode series was co-produced by Fremantle Media-owned Wildside with Haut et Court TV and Mediapro on a budget of roughly $45 million.
Ferrario, who trained as an architect, had previously collaborated with “Pope” creator, writer, and director Paolo Sorrentino on theatrical films “The Great Beauty” and “Youth.” The challenge on the TV project, she says, was “to re-create sites known to millions of eyes and ingrained in the collective imagination.”
It was also a chance to work on a larger scale than she had before.
From the beginning, Sorrentino and Ferrario aimed to keep green-screen use to a minimum, which meant building life-size replicas of portions of the Sistine Chapel, the facade and flooring of St. Peter’s Basilica, the balconies overlooking the plaza where the pope and cardinals appear to crowds, and the Loggia dei Cavalli terrace in front of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, among other locations.
(Nonetheless, some backdrops were necessary. These were filled in by U.K. visual effects house Double Negative.)
At Rome’s Cinecittà Studios, teams of local artisans worked for five weeks just on the Sistine Chapel, of which more than 580 square feet was rebuilt to actual size.
“Light is always key,” says Ferrario. For the gilded components of the Sistine Chapel, she insisted on using real gold leaf. Applying that leaf “one by one” is tough, she notes, but the effort was worth it. “Technically this caused the light to move with the camera.
Reconstructing iconic sculptures, including Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” was also a challenge, as was the creation of authentic-looking marble for Rome’s Baroque-style Chiesa dei Santi Luca e Martina, where the production was allowed access and replicated a portion of San Peter’s and the chapel housing the “Pietà.”
“There is a big difference between reconstructing something in a theater and reconstructing it within a real space,” she points out.
For the set of the papal library/study, the stie of many of the pontiff’s aggressive antics, Ferrario’s team built all the furniture from scratch, based on news videos. Notably, they added a contemporary Plexiglass globe, a reproduction of the Venus of Willendorf, and a carpet bearing the papal coat of arms. These are rare examples, says Sorrentino, of “creative license we took with the production design.”
But otherwise, the library is an exact replica, down to the detail of the secret buzzer under the desk that the Pope can press to summon an assistant who can interrupt a boring meeting. This feature, Sorrentino vows, “actually exists.”