SAN SIMEON, Calif. (CN) — After French emperor Napolean Bonaparte stole an ancient Venus statue from Italy in 1802, a sculptor named Antonio Canova was commissioned to create a replacement.

Renowned for his carving abilities, Canova was credited with “ushering in a new aesthetic of clear, regularized form and calm repose inspired by classical antiquities,” according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Once he carved out his own take on Venus de Medici, featuring a more vulnerable-looking Venus, Canova made at least three copies — one of which wound up in the assembly room of William Randolph Hearst’s expansive San Simeon estate.

As my tour group moved on to the famous refectory, I lagged behind to snap a few photos of the spacious assembly room without a crowd.

As my camera shutter clicked, a castle employee approached, nodded toward a statue in one corner and said, “Did you get a shot of the Venus?”

“Not yet,” I answered, shifting my attention toward a demure-looking marble woman. Figuring it must be significant, I took a few shots and made a mental note to research it later. With so much art packed into one place, it’s easy to miss something important here.

“The eyes don’t know where to go,” said Cara O’Brien, museum director. “It can be a little overwhelming.”

Known today as the Hearst Castle, the publishing tycoon’s unfinished La Cuesta Encantada (“Enchanted Hill”) features 38 bedrooms, 41 fireplaces and famous swimming pools. But perhaps as notable as the estate itself is its substantial art — more than 20,000 artifacts collected by Hearst specifically for the hilltop home on California’s Central Coast.

Longtime former Hearst Castle historian Victoria Kastner is skeptical of an obituary’s claim that he once accounted for 25% of the world’s art market. But, she said, he was clearly a prodigious collector.

“There’s no doubt he was acquiring at a rate that was very seldom matched by anybody else,” said Kastner, who has written four Hearst-related books including her most recent, “Julia Morgan: An Intimate Biography of the Trailblazing Architect.” “That’s why he had so many money troubles — because he kept spending even when he didn’t have the money.”

Hearst’s love of art began at the age of 10, while visiting European art museums with his mother. When his parents died, Hearst, then 56, set about to create a grand estate with Morgan's help on land he inherited in San Simeon. As the duo continually worked on the massive estate — astonishingly, from 1919 until 1947 — Hearst stocked it with sculptures, paintings, tapestries, and more to match Morgan’s architecture.

“He’s continually buying, and she’s continually designing,” Kastner said.

The castle, which became a playground for celebrities like Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, features art everywhere — from its assembly room and guest suites to the Neptune Pool and outside gardens.

In the library, there’s a Greek vase form the first century B.C. An esplanade features Egyptian stone sculptures from as far back as 1550 B.C., and the assembly room includes huge tapestries, paintings and an ornate fireplace.

Because the castle was donated to the state of California, the public can view the home, which appears largely as it did during Hearst’s time there. Unlike an art museum, where pieces are spaced out and placed in otherwise empty rooms, the art here blends with its meticulously designed environment, be it a furnished room, outdoor garden or pool.

“It’s such a rich experience because everything was perfectly placed,” O’Brien said, noting the eloquence, grace and symmetry. “Nothing is by accident.”

Each year, roughly 750,000 people visit the castle. Multiple tours highlight different sections, and well-versed tour guides never rely on a script.

“You could do five grand room tours in a day, and on each tour you’d learn something different,” O’Brien said.

While stories of Hearst’s background and celebrity visitors always generate interest, the castle itself represents an art museum.

“He was such a confident collector,” Kastner said. “A lot of wealthy Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries amassed European art collections, but they often depended on art dealers or experts to tell them where to buy and why they should like it. He was never like that.”

The art reflects many places and eras, though the Renaissance, France, Italy and Spain are heavily represented. And while Orson Welles famously mocked the art as cheap in the cinema classic “Citizen Kane,” Kastner said Hearst had an eye for art.

“Sometimes he bought the best, other times he bought what he liked the best,” she said. “It is true that not everything in San Simeon was world class, by a long shot. It wasn’t that he didn’t know that — he just didn’t care.”

As Hearst collected, staff instituted a detailed inventory, with descriptions of each piece. Adding further details, there are extensive written communications between Hearst and Morgan. As a result, each piece of art comes with a story.

Marbel statues and mosaic tiles decorate the indoor Roman Pool at the Hearst Castle. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)
Marbel statues and mosaic tiles decorate the indoor Roman Pool at the Hearst Castle. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

For example, Jean-Léon Gérôme used himself as a model for a 19th century sculpture in the assembly room titled “Pygmalion and Galatea,” depicting an artist who falls in love with the sculpture he’s creating. In a guest tower, a Mudéjar screen, created in Moor-controlled Spain 400 years ago, was designed so women could look out of windows without a veil. And while most of the ornate wood ceilings were created in Italy and Spain from the 14th to 18th centuries, ceilings in the guest houses were designed by Morgan and custom-made by craftsmen.

“To me the most amazing thing about the place is its entirety,” Kastner said.

The heyday of the castle as a social gathering place for celebrities took place during the Roaring Twenties, when Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies — an actress herself — served as a hostess to people like the Marx Brothers, Winston Churchill and Cary Grant.

While Hearst’s estate certainly is a testament to ego and excess, today the public benefits from it. Hearst and Morgan wanted the place to be available to the public — and had even suggested it to the University of California, Berkeley. While the University of California’s chancellor deemed it too difficult to manage, the estate was donated to the California State Parks in 1958, roughly six years after Hearst’s death.

Hearst knew most people couldn’t get to European art museums. But they could see great European art in his home. Like the Venus.

“Because (Canova) was considered the greatest neoclassical sculptor, this is a major piece,” O’Brien, the castle's museum diretor, said. “Any of the major museums would have wanted it.”

And that's what Hearst Castle became, through Hearst's vision.

“He always intended that it wouldn’t just be a house — it would be a museum," Kastner said.