How Rome Was Re-built

For its new series chronicling the rise of the Empire, HBO painstakingly re-created ancient Rome. LEE MARSHALL pays a visit to the set at Italy's fabled Cinecittà studios.

Yesterday I stood in the middle of the Roman Forum. I don't mean the atmospheric but baffling overlay of truncated ruins that greets today's visitors to the Eternal City. I mean the Roman Forum circa 50 B.C. Facing me was the Temple of Venus, its wine-dark columns draped in festoons. The steps of the Temple of Jupiter, to the left, were still smeared with the red powder that the cult's acolytes had spread around during a festival to venerate the chief Roman god. On the right was the imposing Senate House, where Julius Caesar would be assassinated. And here, stacked in the center of the huge space between the temples—which could serve as a meeting hall, an open-air shopping mall, or a theater as required—were the wooden cages of an exotic animal market. It must have done a roaring trade earlier that day, as all the cages were empty. But a feral whiff still lingered in the air.

This didn't feel like a corny heritage experience; it felt like the real thing. Until a guy in a baseball cap slouched across from center-left gabbling into a walkie-talkie.

You have to give HBO and its BBC coproduction partners credit: It takes guts, and not just a little historical and technical expertise, to rebuild Rome to this level of detail. And it takes even more nerve to do it at Cinecittà—the celebrated Roman film studios, where legendary sword 'n' sandal epics like Quo Vadis and Ben Hur were shot. A 12-part TV dramatic series slated to air on HBO this fall, Rome tells the story of the turbulent years from the height of Caesar's power to his eventual downfall, through the eyes of two Roman foot soldiers. It is the largest single production ever to hit Cinecittà. Not so much in financial terms—though a $100 million budget for a nine-month-long shoot is huge by television standards; what's unprecedented is the sheer magnitude of the set. Even Joseph Mankiewicz, whose Cleopatra (1963) was one of the costliest flops of all time, managed to use only a couple of studios and part of the back lot. In contrast, the setting for Rome sprawls across five acres and no fewer than six soundstages.

There is a paradox here. While Rome is a made-for-TV creation, its cinematic scope and methods have given a new lease on life to the city's historic movie studios—which in the nineties were largely used for low-grade television game shows and variety shows. Founded in 1937 by Mussolini (who was fully aware of the power of the moving image and naïvely confident he could harness it), the Cinecittà studios had their heyday during the fifties and sixties. These were the Dolce Vita years, when such icons as Liz Taylor, Richard Burton, Audrey Hepburn, Ava Gardner, and Henry Fonda kept the paparazzi occupied by doing the Via Veneto nightclub thing after a long day on the set. That time also marked the years in which Italy's postwar generation of directors came into its own, with angry young terriers like Rosselini and De Sica snapping at the heels of il maestro Federico Fellini—whose aversion to location shooting was more than compensated for by the dreamscapes he created at Cinecittà. The largest soundstage, Studio 5, became the director's second home—and it was here that thousands of ordinary Romans came to file past Fellini's coffin upon his death in October 1993.

The rebirth of Cinecitta began when Martin Scorsese arrived to shoot Gangs of New York in 2001. More a cinematic event than a box-office smash, the film nevertheless provided a much-needed infusion of money and celebrity wattage to the studios. When Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and Daniel Day-Lewis hit town, it was as though the golden age of Hollywood on the Tiber—Cinecittà's nickname then—had never gone away.

The movie also created work for hundreds of highly skilled craftsmen, who have proved one of the studios' main selling points in competing with Eastern European rivals in Bulgaria or the Czech Republic that boasted cheaper labor. Within the ranks of these artisans are small enterprises, among them the Grassi family—a Cinecittà costumemaking and leatherworking dynasty. Alvaro Grassi made the leather body armor worn by Richard Burton in Cleopatra. Now his sons Augusto and Giampaolo are putting the finishing touches on Marc Antony's greaves—wraparound shin pads that replicate the ripples and veining of the muscles they protect—and shaping an army officer's leather cuirass that could have been modeled on the governor of California's torso. Rome's Oscar-nominated costume designer, April Ferry, who worked all around the world, says, "I haven't seen anyone do leather, painted fabric, or metal the way I've seen craftsmen do in this production."

HBO and BBC have spread the craftsman approach to its cast and crew selection, preferring solid television directors and proven actors over big Hollywood names. Apart from Michael Apted—who directed the first three episodes—most of the other directors (each of whom gets only one or two chances to shine) are TV specialists like Jeremy Podeswa (Six Feet Under) and Julian Farino (Entourage). The cast consists of well-regarded actors who are not yet famous in this country—many of them British, as are Ciaran Hinds, who plays Caesar, and James Purefoy (recently seen opposite Reese Witherspoon in Vanity Fair), who cuts a dashing figure as Marc Antony. A number of the production department heads are Brits as well, including the real "man to know" on the set: historical consultant Jonathan Stamp, a member of BBC's history department in London.

Stamp walks as fast as he talks, but it's an exhilarating and informative ride. He starts by stressing the fact that the set is a near-exact replica of Rome in 50 or so B.C., based on the most recent historical research. The houses are made out of fiberglass to simulate wood, wattle, and straw. Apartment dwelling was the norm then, Stamp reports, with better-off families renting the lower floors and the very poorest living in the top rooms, "which were little more than the size of large shoeboxes, and were rented by the day, as in Japanese capsule hotels."

One of the set's most fascinating areas is the reconstruction of the Subura, ancient Rome's inner-city slum. I comment that it smacks more of the souks of Fes or Marrakech than of imperial Rome. Stamp agrees, emphasizing that this is exactly what much of ancient Rome was actually like. "Archaeological sites often give a false impression of grandeur," he explains, "because only the really important [best-constructed] buildings—the temples and the arenas—have survived." He points out the gaudily painted statues, columns, and temple friezes, saying, "Ancient Rome was a much more colorful place than you would think." Stamp reminds me that the unadorned white marble façades in our collective image bank are false constructs of the Renaissance and neoclassical ages, with their myth of classical purity and order.

We continue, moving on to the communal latrines, around 30 seats arranged in a horseshoe so that clients—both male and female—could gossip and discuss the latest news while attending to business. Stamp picks up what resembles a large toilet brush. "Now, I won't tell you what they used this for," he says. He does anyway, though, with great relish.

Because everyday dirt helps create an authentic feel, the crew has instructions to leave in place any straw, mud, or organic refuse that falls to the ground, rather than sweep it away. "At first," Stamp says, "it all felt a bit too new, but as time goes by we're getting more and more of a lived-in look." Some of the cast have found such rigorous authenticity unsettlingly real. "The straw and manure attracts flies," he says, "and some evenings we get eaten alive by bugs."

Of course, this is still television, and not everything is true to life. Take that first view of the Forum: It all looks very convincing, until one realizes that the Senate House was actually nonexistent in 51 B.C. (it had burned down the year before) and that the Temple of Jupiter has been moved slightly downhill to create a more unified open space. As for the Temple of Venus, it is a historical mélange combining elements of the Temples of Saturn and Concord. Liberties of scale have been taken, too—the monumental buildings average 60 percent of their original size, but the streets were significantly widened to allow camera crews to operate.

Stamp is good at making contemporary parallels—and there are plenty to be drawn. In the first century B.C., chariot racing was a far more popular spectator sport than gladiatorial games, and the four factions—the Greens, Blues, Reds, and Whites—had a fully developed fan culture, complete with stadium violence and graffiti scrawled on city walls. "You have to see Brazilian soccer to find the level of passion that ordinary Romans invested in the sport," Stamp says, "and even then you probably fall short—the Americana Stadium in Rio can hold two hundred thousand-odd people, whereas the Circo Massimo could probably accommodate as many as three hundred thousand—almost a third of the city's population." He also talks about the "huge fast-food industry." Nobody cooked indoors as it was too dangerous: Food and wine were ordered in from any one of hundreds of stalls and thermopolia.

At the time of writing, HBO had not yet decided if it would shoot a second season of Rome. But whether or not the series is extended, the set of this epic is so unique and holds such potential as an appointment-only tourist attraction, one hopes it will remain up for a while after the dollies and arc lights have been packed away.


VISITING CINECITTA

Right now there is no easy way to get into Cinecittà unless you are a bona fide cinema professional or you know someone working there. But the studios occasionally rent out parts of the back lot—such as the revamped Broadway set from Gangs of New York—for such events as corporate product launches and wedding receptions. Otherwise, Cinecittà is only open to the public for guided tours during the Notte Bianca in September—generally the third or fourth Saturday of the month—when the city parties all night long. For event booking, contact Carole Andrè-Smith, international marketing executive, at 39-06/7229-3203. For details on the 2005 festivities, visit www.lanottebianca.it.


FROM REPUBLIC TO IMPERIAL RULE

52 B.C. As season 1 of Rome kicks off, Julius Caesar is irradicating the final pockets of Celtic resistance to his legions in Gaul, while his main rival, Pompey, is consolidating his influence over the senatorial party in Rome.

49 B.C. After a long stand-off with the Senate, Caesar takes to arms, crossing the Rubicon with his legions and pronouncing the fateful words "The die is cast." He immediately takes Rome virtually uncontested.

48 B.C. At the battle of Pharsalus in Macedonia, Caesar defeats Pompey's troops. Pompey flees to Egypt, where he is put to death on the order of Ptolemy XIII. Arriving in pursuit, Caesar falls in love with royal princess Cleopatra and ends up staying 20 months in Egypt.

45 B.C. Having assumed the title of dictator for life and the permanent accolade of imperator, Caesar quells the last of Pompey's supporters at Munda in Spain.

44 B.C. On March 15, the Ides of March, Caesar is killed by a group of conspirators, including his mistress's son Brutus. Into the power vacuum step three men: Marc Antony, Caesar's most trusted lieutenant; Marcus Lepidus; and Caius Octavian, Caesar's nephew.

42 B.C. The forces of the Second Triumvirate—an uneasy alliance between Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus—crush those of Caesar's assassins, Cassius and Brutus, at Philippi. Soon after, Antony and Cleopatra become lovers.

40 B.C. The Empire is divided between the three triumvirs. Antony marries Octavian's sister Octavia, but immediately returns to Cleopatra in Egypt.

36 B.C. Octavian ends resistance by Sextus Pompeius, who controlled Sicily, Sardinia, and most of Italy's islands, and then defeats Lepidus, taking his African provinces.

32 B.C. Backed by the Senate, Octavian declares war on Cleopatra and Antony.

31 B.C. Cleopatra and Antony are defeated at the naval battle of Actium, and flee back to Egypt.

30 B.C. During Octavian's siege of Alexandria, Antony commits suicide upon hearing the rumor that Cleopatra is dead. When she learns of her lover's death, the queen, too, ends her life.

27 B.C. Octavian—careful not to overturn Rome's republican traditions all at once—has the Senate name him Augustus, which is used to indicate a man worthy of veneration. The first step toward outright imperial rule has been taken.