This lavish room with its velvet walls, Renaissance-era paintings and huge stone fireplace looks like you would find it in an Italian castle from perhaps the 15th or 16th century. It’s intended to look exactly like that. In fact it was built in the 1920s in California, as one of the grandest rooms of the “Casa Grande,” the largest and most posh mansion in the complex of overindulgence that newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst built on a mountain called San Simeon. Though not really a castle, and numerous buildings instead of just one, this place has come to be known as “Hearst Castle.” It’s one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state.
The “Doge Suite,” one of the guest rooms at San Simeon, is named after the Doge of Venice, evoking the high Renaissance although historically doges existed for many centuries, not just the Renaissance period. Hearst was a passionate collector of European art and especially liked medieval and Gothic themes. You can tell that from the religious scenes on the wall and the Madonna etched above the fireplace. There are some nods to the 20th century in this room if you look closely. The furniture is definitely a 1920s style, but made to complement previous European styles. There’s an old-style telephone next to the clock on the table in the foreground. Indeed, while Italian Renaissance is what the scene seems to want to say, in fact it’s a pastiche of styles spanning centuries. This was very chic among the rich in the 1920s.
An eccentric millionaire who had made his fortune and sought a refuge from the world, Hearst began building San Simeon in 1919 after his “yellow journalism” exploits helped push the United States into the Spanish-American War. He was still very much in control of his media empire during the 1920s, and famously romanced actress Marion Davies who spent a lot of time at Hearst Castle. This relationship–and much of the rest of Hearst’s life–was the subject of the fictional portrayal by Orson Welles in his 1941 film Citizen Kane. In the film San Simeon was known as “Xanadu.” Hearst’s battle to suppress the film has become almost as famous as the film itself. He died in 1951, three years after construction on San Simeon–which was never really finished–stopped. The site became a U.S. National Historic Landmark in 1976 and is currently a museum. I visited it in 1987, but never got a picture quite like this!