125 Treasures: Francesco Grassia’s “The Birth of Wine”

Francesco Grassia "The Birth of Wine"

“The Birth of Wine” or “The Allegory of Human Life”
Francesco Grassia (ca. 1640 – after 1683)
Bequest of James and Sallie Dooley, 1925
Maymont Mansion Collection (25.275)

James Dooley had a particular interest in art. As one of his associates remarked, “Major Dooley combined the art of making money with the love of art.” (1) He enjoyed serving as president of the Art Club of Richmond for over a decade and donated a building for the organization’s exhibitions, art lessons, and lectures. Among the relatively few Dooley papers that have come to light in the past four decades are documents which not only reinforce the image of Dooley as art lover and collector, but also provide the provenance of one of Maymont’s treasures and led to the unraveling of its true identity. (2)

Saved by Mrs. Dooley’s nephew, Fitzhugh Elder, and donated by his grandson to the Maymont Mansion Archives, the papers document Dooley’s purchase of an important Italian Baroque sculpture that has been displayed in the Maymont Dining Room since it was shipped to Richmond from Italy in 1910. In June of that year, the Dooleys were enjoying a leisurely visit to Rome, visiting the museums, cultural landmarks, and galleries, and buying works to display in their home. At the Gallery Sangiorgi, Dooley purchased what was then said to be an early work by the great Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680). Documents show that he paid $4,500. In a letter written in Italian accompanying the invoice, the previous owner explained that the marble group, representing the birth of wine, had been in his family palace “for many and many years and was always attributed to Bernini.”

When Dooley’s papers were donated, I invited Dr. Miles Chappell of the College of William and Mary, an expert in Baroque sculpture, to research the sculpture. With the aid of art historians at Princeton, the Metropolitan Museum, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and in Italy, he revealed that the Maymont group was actually the work of a now obscure contemporary of Bernini, Francesco Grassia. His research showed that the Cardelli family in Rome had owned it for two and a half centuries. After its shipment to the Dooleys’ home, to scholars of Italian Baroque sculpture, its whereabouts became “location unknown.” In the 1950s and 60s, interest in the sculpture’s attribution was awakened among art historians by articles in Italian and American art journals, the only illustration then available being the 1910 photograph in the Gallery Sangiorgi catalogue. (3) Dr. Chappell’s article in the Southeastern College Art Review reintroduced the work to the world of art history scholarship.

Created in 1661 and known by various titles over the centuries, Grassia’s virtuoso sculpture represents arcane Bacchic iconography – a scene from the life of the infant satyr Pan, an associate of Bacchus and the child of the Greek god Hermes and the Arcadian nymph Oinoe. The dramatic scene depicts the metamorphosis of Oinoe from whose torso a grape vine emerges, reminiscent of the metamorphosis depicted in Bernini’s “Daphne and Apollo.” The intricate composition also shows Pan struggling with other putti, all entangled in grape vines. Important to the theme, a panther, an attribute of Pan, is shown devouring a bunch of grapes, symbolizing the untamed spirit contained in wine. (4)

The complex allegorical allusions of “The Birth of Wine” would have appealed to the classically educated James Dooley, who certainly would have appreciated the appropriateness of its Bacchic allusions for his Dining Room where many fine wines were served on innumerable festive occasions. Doubtless, he felt a sense of triumph to have acquired a work by Bernini, the celebrated master of European sculpture. Fortunately, he didn’t live to learn its true authorship.

One of only four known works by Francesco Grassia, the sculpture has been published in Sculptura Del ‘600 A Roma by Andrea Bacchi in 1996 and mentioned in a 2018 article by Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, “A Faun in Love: the Bernini Sculpture in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” It was conserved by Scott Nolley in 2003, and in 2018, the original seventeenth century pedestal is being conserved by Sandy Jensen, the mansion’s trusted, long-time conservation adviser. Conservation has been generously funded by the Maymont Council and Lynne and Robert Glasser.


  1. Special thanks to Dr. Mary Lynn Bayliss for sharing this quotation from William A. MacCorkle, The Recollections of Fifty Years in West Virginia, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1928.
  2. According to a 1926 entry in the Dooley Museum Hostesses’ Daily Journal in the Maymont Mansion Archives, all family papers on the premises at the time of Mrs. Dooley’s death in 1925 were destroyed “by the order of Mrs. Dooley’s nieces.”
  3. Italo Faldi, “L’allegoria della ‘Vita humana’ di Francesco Grassia,” Paragone, N. 99 (1958), pp. 36-40; and Irving Lavin, “Five New Youthful Sculptures by Gianlorenzo Bernini and a Revised Chronology of His Early Wrlks,” Art Bulletin, Vol. L. No.3, p. 240.
  4. Miles Chappell, “Bernini and Francesco Grassia’s ‘Allegory on Human Life:’ The Origins and Clarification of Some Erroneous Assumptions, Southeastern College Art Conference Review, 1983.

Written by Dale Wheary, Maymont Curator and Director of Historical Collections and Programs, this post is part of a blog series commemorating Maymont Mansion’s 125th anniversary. Each post in the series will detail significant objects, from sculptures and paintings to furniture and fine porcelain, in the Maymont Museum Collection. Read all posts in the series here.

Visit Maymont Mansion to see Grassia’s “The Birth of Wine” sculpture and more from the mansion collection.

One response to “125 Treasures: Francesco Grassia’s “The Birth of Wine”

  1. I wonder if the James Dooley was intrigued by the classical story more than the actual sculptor. Was it better to have a “name brand sculpture” or was it appreciated for the theme and workmanship?

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