From the beginning, Rome's creators intended to portray the ancient city in a way that's never been done before to leave behind the stereotypical "Holly-Rome" visions of a pristine, white marble, patrician city for the reality of a gritty, crowded, vibrant and cosmopolitan metropolis of a million residents, from senators to slaves. Also setting Rome apart from its predecessors is the fact that the series focuses on the lives of two soldiers from the working-class Suburra, a rarely portrayed world that is vastly different from the upper-class villas.
Production designer Joseph Bennett began with a blank slate and the first three scripts, working with the producers to determine the main areas of focus the patrician villas, the Suburra and the Forum. He had six months to go from bare backlots to readiness for the first day of shooting.
The sense of the script, and the whole storyline, is to make this as realistic as possible, a living, breathing place. The buildings had color, the streets were dirty, there were masses of multi-racial people living in very close quarters, and its not what youre used to seeing, says Bennett. "We combined the academic research of what Rome was like with inspirations from places like Calcutta, Delhi, Cairo or Mexico City, where you have extreme wealth living alongside extreme poverty. Rome was the center of power and opportunity, so people flocked to it from everywhere. So you think, what would that have been like? Well, it would be crowded, noisy, in a constant state of flux, with buildings going up or coming down..."
With the help of the executive producers and historical consultant Jonathan Stamp, Bennett and his team set about designing the Suburra, a part of Rome for which there is little surviving physical reference.
"Unless you were fabulously wealthy, you lived in an apartment-type building, typically six stories tall, called an insula," says Stamp. There's only one surviving in Rome today, and it's from a later period than our story, but it gives an idea of how the poorer half lived..."
Because production was initially scheduled for at least nine months, Bennett notes, "The sets had to be built to higher specifications than a normal feature shoot, where you'd tear it down after two months. So we used more inert materials like fiberglass, concrete, resins and plastics than usual. But as to the finishing, we've used techniques and styles that are true to the times as far as decorative painting, frescoes, fabrics and that sort of thing, goes."
An international crew of about 350 started work on the five acres of backlot and six soundstages that make up the Rome set at Cinecitta. It is the largest standing set in the world. The Forum set is approximately 60% the size of the original Foro Romano, and 25% percent of it is invisible in the form of wiring, pipes and gas to fuel its working braziers and torches.
"The biggest headache has been just getting the thing done on time," adds Bennett. It's such an enormous amount of wall space to build and paint and age. And the aging's the key, because what makes a place look real is when things change over the years, like a doorway's bricked up and the plaster doesn't quite match, or something's been broken and repaired, or a torch leaves scorch marks on the wall, and all that just takes time. The tenements were always falling down so they used to prop them back up again and nothing's plumb and square that has to be built in from the start. We were literally still finishing the first coat of paint in places as they began shooting."
Adding to the texture of the set is the production rule that whatever drops is left where it falls vegetation, wood scraps, food, dirt and debris. Working in close concert with Bennett is set decorator Cristina Onori, who transforms his structures into livable spaces.
A Roman herself, Onori takes pride in working on a project set in her hometown, and her research has opened her eyes to links to the past that still exist but are easily overlooked. "Now, when I walk the streets, especially the small ones, I notice something that I may have seen all my life but I now realize it's actually from a long time ago. It's almost like regaining a lost memory, a lost connection, and makes living in this reality richer."
Bennett agrees that Rome could not have been shot anywhere else. "There's a great tradition in Italy of making huge epics like "Cleopatra" here. If you need someone who can make a great Corinthian capital, they'll be here," he says.