ByMarguerita Tan, writer at Creators.co
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Marguerita Tan

's exciting new drama The Young Pope is a visual feast. Not only is a joy to watch as Pope Pius XIII — the flamboyant and controversial first American Pontiff — but the visually stunning and oh-so-detailed recreation of Vatican City is also one of the show's highlights. As movie and TV filming is strictly forbidden at the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, the fact that the 10-episode series can be convincingly made without having to film in or around the Vatican is an impressive feat in itself.

Michelangelo's Pietà recreated in "The Young Pope" (Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)
Michelangelo's Pietà recreated in "The Young Pope" (Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)

From rebuilding the Sistine Chapel and St Peter's Basilica to reproducing more than 30 works of art, including Michelangelo's Pietà, production designer Ludovica Ferrario and her team have been lauded for their meticulous work on the series that was created by Paolo Sorrentino. In recent interviews, the Italian designer revealed how the historic and independent city-state is brought to life for .

Rebuilding From Scratch In Rome

"The Young Pope" (Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)
"The Young Pope" (Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)

As showrunner, Sorrentino is very particular about the details. Vital structures such as the Sistine Chapel, the façades of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, and St Mark’s Basilica in Venice had to be reconstructed at Rome's Cinecittà studios, one of the largest film studios in Europe. With only footage and images as a reference point, a full-scale 5813 square-foot replica of the Sistine Chapel was constructed by a small army of builders and painters over a period of about eight weeks.

The Vatican library in "The Young Pope" (Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)
The Vatican library in "The Young Pope" (Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)

Also painstakingly constructed, with the use of photographs and video recordings, is the papal study where most of Pius XIII's discussions and confrontations with the cardinals (and other notable characters) take place. Ferrario affirmed to Vulture that a lot of research was done for this particular set, which is one of the key backdrops used in the show.

“Its construction was a very faithful reconstruction, to the point of reproducing the same paintings, the same bookshelves, and curtains.”

Still, the production team did take liberties, adding elements and flourishes to this particular set as and when the script demanded it. These embellishments included a carpet bearing the papal coat of arms, a Venus of Willendorf statue, and a huge acrylic globe that Pope Pius uses to locate the most remote parts of the world to assign priests to whenever they annoy him. Ferrario explained to EW the rationale behind this:

“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.”

Perfect Locations In Italy

The unmistakable Piazza San Marco in Venice (Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)
The unmistakable Piazza San Marco in Venice (Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)

Not everything could be reconstructed in a studio lot, however. According to Ferrario, more than 50 different locations in Rome, Venice and the Lazio region in central Italy were used for the series.

Some of the interiors for St Peter’s Basilica, for instance, were filmed at the Santi Luca e Martina, a 17th century baroque church situated near the Roman Forum, which enabled the production team to shoot scenes depicting St Peter's hallways as well as the chapel with the Pietà by Michelangelo. Hallways in Rome’s Palazzo Venezia were also used to fill in as the passageways of the Vatican.

Jude Law and Diane Keaton in "The Young Pope" (Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)
Jude Law and Diane Keaton in "The Young Pope" (Credit: Gianni Fiorito/HBO)

Easier to a certain extent for Ferrario and her team was sourcing stand-ins to represent the splendor of the expansive gardens of Vatican City. For this purpose, several villas and gardens in and around Rome were utilized. These include the capital’s Orto Botanico, or botanical gardens; Villa Medici; Villa Piccolomini; and Villa Dora Pamphili, the largest landscaped public park in the city and which doubles as Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer residence. Ferrario regarded it as a godsend that The Young Pope is set in her native Italy, telling EW:

“Italy is a perfect film studio. What we found in between Rome and its surroundings and Venice would never have been possible abroad.”

For viewers who have never been to Vatican City — officially the smallest country in the world — watching The Young Pope is arguably the next best thing.

Watch the official trailer for The Young Pope here:

Episode 6 of The Young Pope airs Sunday, February 12 on HBO at 6 p.m. PST.

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[Main image: Gianni Fiorito/HBO. Sources: Architectural Digest, Curbed, EW, Vulture]

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