One of the main highlights of The Young Pope, HBO’s new series about the first American to ascend to the papacy, is the luscious production design. As the conservative Pope Pius XIII, star Jude Law strolls through a detailed and visually stunning recreation of the Vatican, which draws you in with its grandeur that still comes across on screen.
A re-created Sistine Chapel, 30 reproduced works of art, and 13,420 meals later, production designer Ludovica Ferrario reflects on what it took to bring the holiest home of the Catholic Church to life on The Young Pope.
The Sistine Chapel
Over the course of two months, 40 constructors and 25 painters built a 540-square-meter replica of the Sistine Chapel — including the portal to the Regal Room — based on footage and images, as they weren’t allowed to take actual measurements of the chapel itself.
The Young Pope creator and director Paolo Sorrentino (above) was a stickler for details, and painters used “gold leaf to make the printed wall apparatus come alive,” says Ferrario, adding that they aged the walls by coating them with patina.
“It was demanding and stimulating to stage places so close to the collective imagination and reproducing them in their grandiosity,” she says. “And inventing a world, Lenny’s world.”
The Pope’s Private Study
Not having the participation of the Vatican turned out to be a blessing. “The prohibition stimulated creativity, as often happens, forcing us to reinvent places that are at once well-known and mysterious,” says Ferrario. “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.”
While they tried to philologically design the Pope’s study, they weren’t afraid to take some plausible liberties when it came to furnishing the corridor to the pope’s office. To suit the story, Ferrario and his team added the Venus of Willendorf statue, the Plexiglas globe (which was specifically made for the show), and a carpet bearing the Pope’s papal coat of arms.
“The important thing was to plunge the audience into a credible space, avoiding mistakes, keeping to the real, and above all opening up to the plausible,” she says.
The Vatican Gardens
“Italy is a perfect film studio,” notes Ferrario, explaining that the Italy-set episodes used about 50 different locations. “What we found in between Rome and its surroundings and Venice would never have been possible abroad.”
Production used sights in and around Rome — including the capital’s botanical gardens, Villa Dora Pamphili, Villa Medici, Villa Piccolomini, and Villa Lante — to substitute for Vatican City. “We tried to represent not only the monumental parts of Italian gardens but also the wilder, more natural areas to show the vastness of the papal state,” she says.
The Young Pope premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.