Guy Bourdin, Vogue Paris, 1961 © Estate of Guy Boudin, 2016.

MADRID - The Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza is presenting Bulgari and Rome, an exhibition that looks at how the art and architecture of ancient and modern Rome have been a source of inspiration to the designers of this firm of Italian jewellers throughout its history. Founded in Rome in 1884, since its outset Bulgari has made use of the city’s most characteristic features as the guiding symbolic and artistic thread of its creations. For decades the Colosseum, the Piazza San Pietro, the Spanish Steps, the fountains in the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon have given form to necklaces, bracelets, earrings and brooches made in gold or platinum and precious stones of every colour: cabochon cut gems that reproduce the typical domes of the Roman skyline; geometrical designs that reflect the pure lines of the ruins; and glints of gold that recall Baroque volutes are among the details that reveal Bulgari’s homage to the Eternal City.

With the aim of demonstrating this close connection, the exhibition brings together more than 140 pieces of jewellery from Bulgari’s Heritage Collection (including jewels that belonged to Elizabeth Taylor) and from a number of private collections, including that of Baroness Thyssen. They are displayed alongside around 30 paintings, drawings, sculptures and photographs by different European artists who have depicted the city of Rome in their works, including Canaletto, Gaspar van Wittel, Ippolito Caffi and Arthur John Strutt. The majority have been lent by the Museo di Roma (Palazzo Braschi) with other loans from the Galleria Borghese, the Capitoline Museums and the collections of Banco Intesa San Paolo and the Circolo della Caccia. 

Presented with a carefully designed installation that includes interactive elements, Bulgari and Rome also allows visitors to take a journey through more than 130 years of the firm’s history, from the accessories and adornments made by hand in silver in the late 19th century by its founder Sotirio Bulgari and the platinum and diamond jewels from the 1920s and 1930s that still adhered to the French taste, to very recent creations including spectacular jewels from the firm’s iconic collections such as Serpenti, Monete, Parentesi and Bulgari Bulgari. Together they reveal the preference for rounded forms, the use of unusual colours and a taste for yellow gold during some decades as some of the most characteristic features of the Bulgari style. 


Necklace in silver, Sotirio Bulgari, 1880. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome.


Platinum bracelet with diamonds, emeralds and black onyx, 1925. Built as an articulated band pavé diamonds with three rectangular step-cut emeralds and a Greek motif in a calibrated cut onyx, the frame engraved with scroll decorations. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome.


Bulgari. "Piccolo" ring with emerald and diamonds, 1932. The emerald octagonal shape is mounted on a platinum band embellished with a pavé of round cut diamonds, the sides a reason of four baguetteBulgari Heritage Collection, Rome.



Bulgari. Platinum diamond bracelet, circa 1939. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome.


Bulgari. Gold diamond bracelet watch, circa 1940Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome.


Bulgari. Powder compact in silver with gold coin from Bavaria (1410-1436), 1940. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome.


Bulgari. Vintage brooch with diamonds and cabochon cut stones from 50s


Bulgari Roma watch in gold with cord and leather strap, 1975Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome.


Bulgari. Serpenti bracelet-watch in gold with white enamel, emeralds and diamonds, 1975. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome.



Bulgari. Parentesi necklace in gold with diiamonds, 1982. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome. 

Capturing eternity: Rome in Bulgari design

With its impressive vestiges of the Roman Empire, its broad city squares, imposing Baroque architecture with innumerable fountains and its magnificent basilicas, the city of Rome has been a source of inspiration for artists and intellectuals of every century. In the words of Paolo Bulgari, grandson of the firm’s founder, Bulgari’s creations are “a journey through the Italian masterpieces that have inspired them.” 

The result is a journey that begins with one of the city’s most famous monuments, depicted by numerous artists and with an unmistakeable oval form that has made it one of Bulgari’s signature motifs: the Colosseum. It is already present in a bracelet of 1934 which combines diamonds with stones of a single colour, the red of rubies. This is a jewel that retains the prevailing Art Deco, geometrical style of the early decades of the 20th century but reveals an early use of the cabochon cut, which gives the stone a rounded appearance. This technique, which was revolutionary at the time, would subsequently be developed to make it the preeminent and most highly appreciated within Bulgari’s style. 


Canaletto, Il Colosseo, c. 1742-1745, Galleria Borghese


Bulgari. Bracelet in platinum with rubies and diamonds (1934), formerly in the collection of Ellen Barkin. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome


Ippolito Caffi, Coliseo (Colosseo). Oil on canvas, 43 x 65 cm. Musei di Roma, Palazzo Braschi



Bulgari. Choker in gold with rubies, sapphires, lapis lazuli and diamonds, 1979. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome

The elliptical form was also among the most favoured by the great architects of the Italian Baroque in their aim to give movement to urban buildings and spaces and it gradually prevailed over the classical circular form. The colonnade and Piazza San Pietro, designed by Bernini as an immense space to house huge crowds in which the columns surround and guide pilgrims to the basilica, were the source of inspiration for a series of brooches in the 1930s. These are still influenced by Art Deco but now use rounded stones which emphasise their architectural design. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, the firm revived the use of the oval in pieces made in gold combined with different precious stones.


Giuseppe Vasi. Piazza S. Pietro, c. 1774-1775, Musei di Roma


Bulgari. Triple clip brooch in platinum with rubies and diamonds, 1930Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome

A platinum ring with natural pearls and diamonds of 1963 reproduces the unmistakable form of the twin churches on the Piazza del Popolo, also designed by Bernini, which were one of the first sights to be seen by dignitaries and pilgrims entering Rome via that famous square. The meeting at this point between the Via del Corso, the Via Ripetta (which is the city’s oldest street and leads to Saint Peter’s) and the Via del Babuino leading to Santa Maria Maggiore, creates a network of streets known as the Tridente after its shape, which fans out into the city. This unique urban layout is reproduced in a necklace that can be converted into a brooch made in 1955 in gold and platinum with three lines of rubies and a delicate diamond bow.


Gaspar van Wittel, Piazza del Popolo, 1715, Intesa San Paolo


Bulgari . "Cross-over" ring in platinum with natural grey and white pearls and diamonds (ca. 1963). Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome


Ippolito Caffi, Piazza del Popolo. Watercolor, 50 x 38,5 cm. Musei di Roma, Palazzo Braschi


Bulgari. Necklace-brooch combination in platinum and gold with rubies and diamonds, 1955

One of Rome’s most famous squares is undoubtedly the Piazza Navona. Located on the site of the Stadium of Domitian (1st century AD), the Baroque beauty of this location is echoed in the elongated shape of a brooch of 1934 which has three large diamonds set in a row similar to the alignment of the piazza’s famous fountains: the Four Rivers in the centre, designed by Bernini, flanked on either side by the fountains of the Moor and of Neptune.


Giuseppe Vasi, Piazza Navona, Musei di de Roma.


Bulgari. Brooch-clip combination in platinum with diamonds, 1934. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was also the first to propose a concave and convex design for the wall of the double steps in the Piazza di Spagna, although the final project would subsequently be undertaken by a different architect. The curving lines of these famous steps, recently restored with sponsorship by Bulgari, inspired the creation in 1938 of a platinum and diamond necklace that can be converted into two bracelets, two elongated brooches and two further smaller ones, representing a typical example of convertible jewellery of the 1930s. In 2016 a new creation was once again inspired by the Spanish Steps: a gold necklace set with emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds that evoke the azaleas which embellish the steps in the spring. 

For some centuries the Ponte Sant’Angelo provided the only connection between the two banks of the Tiber. It was built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian to unite the Campus Martius with his mausoleum, was subsequently transformed into papal offices and a prison and is now known as the Castello di Sant’Angelo. In the 17th century Bernini designed the ten sculptures of angels on the sides of the bridge, which inspired a design of 1938 for a pair of platinum and diamond earrings. Similarly, the pentagonal form of the castle appears in a sumptuous necklace of 1991 which has precious stones symmetrically arranged on a gold base and elements distinctive of the Bulgari style, such as its striking combination of colours and the creative use of the stones in order to adapt them to the design of the jewel with its rounded and angular parts. 


Bulgari. Earrings in platinum with diamonds, 1938. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome


Bulgari. Necklace in gold with emeralds, amethysts, citrines, pink tourmalines, sapphires and diamonds, 1991. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome

From ancient Rome to the Baroque, the octagonal form appears in numerous monuments in the city, particularly in carved and painted wooden ceilings in its palaces. Bulgari’s interest in geometrical forms transformed the octagon into the ideal shape for large pendants in the 1970s, normally illuminated by a large central gem and which could be worn as a brooch or on a longchained necklace. A magnificent example is the platinum, sapphire and diamond necklace that was given by Richard Burton to Elizabeth Taylor on her 40th birthday in 1972. Similarly, the decoration of the spectacular dome of the Pantheon has inspired the creation of various pieces such as a gold and diamond collar of 1992 that recalls its characteristic form through its lines of baguette-cut diamonds. 


Bulgari. Sautoir in platinum with sapphires and diamonds, 1969. Formerly in the collection of Elizabeth Taylor. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome


Bulgari. Necklace and pendent earrings in gold with diamonds, 1992Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome

A series of brooches from the late 1980s with a concentric pattern of various colours pay tribute to the ingenious symmetry of the Temple of Venus and Rome which was built on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian and has two facing apses that share the same wall and house statues of Venus Felix and Roma Aeterna. This is a building with a form that corresponds to the play of words AMOR – ROMA: a palindrome which, like the temple, allowed love (Venus) to be venerated in one direction and Rome in the other. 


Bulgari."Carré" brooch, 1987. Gold inlaid emeralds, rubies, sapphires and diamonds.



Bulgari. "Carré" brooch, 1987. Gold with aquamarines, amethysts, red and green tourmalines, sapphires, and diamonds.


Bulgari. "Carré” brooch in gold with natural pearl, amethysts, emeralds and diamonds, 1989.  

Following the conquest of Egypt, the Roman emperors brought back a number of its obelisks to the city as a demonstration of the superiority of their civilisation over that of Egypt. The hieroglyphics on them have inspired the design of necklaces since the 1970s, inset with mother-of-pearl and carnelian. Other necklaces and bracelets which combine precious stones of different colours and sizes imitate the characteristic arrangement of stones of different shapes and sizes used by the Romans to build their roads, such as the famous Appian Way. They include a gold necklace with amethysts, peridots, aquamarines and diamonds of 2003; a bracelet in yellow gold with topazes, amethysts, citrines, peridots and tourmalines of 2013; and another gold necklace with blue and yellow sapphires, cultivated pearls and diamonds made in 1988.


Bulgari. Bracelet in gold with topazes, amethysts, citrines, peridots and tourmalines (2013). Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome.


Bulgari. Necklace and pendent earrings in gold with blue and yellow sapphires, cultured pearls and diamonds, 1988. Private collection of Baroness Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza.

The outsize circular star that decorates the paving in the Piazza del Campidoglio was completed in 1940, although it dates back to an original project by Michelangelo on which construction began in the 16th century. This emblematic design was reinterpreted in 1955 in a pair of brooches in platinum, rubies and diamonds that belonged to Anna Magnani, who would wear them with her “Tridente” earrings in an affirmation of her Roman origins.


Bulgari. Platinum brooch, decorated with diamonds and rubies, 1955Formerly in the collection of Anna Magnani. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome


Bulgari. Platinum brooch, decorated with diamonds and rubies, 1957. Formerly in the collection of Anna Magnani. Bulgari Heritage Collection, Rome.

Bulgari, from jewellery to empire

Descended from a Greek family of goldsmiths, the firm’s founder Sotirio Bulgari went to Italy in the late 19th century and in 1884 opened his first shop in Rome. The present building, located at number 10 Via Condotti, opened in 1905 and eventually all the firm’s activities would be grouped together there. Of Sotirio’s six sons, Giorgio and Constantino were the most involved in the business, taking over from him after his death in 1932. Two years later they reopened the shop after major improvements and changed the firm’s name to BVLGARI in capital letters and with lettering taken from ancient Roman inscriptions. At this point the two brothers opted to move away from the French school of jewellery that prevailed at this period with its characteristic use of platinum and diamonds in geometrical designs and instead began to combine diamonds with cabochon cut precious stones of different colours, representing a revolution in jewellery design.

The post-war period saw a boom in the economy that favoured Bulgari’s stylistic experimentation, particularly with regard to the use of colour, and in the 1950s the firm began to introduce unprecedented colour combinations that would become increasingly daring over the following decades. With the emergence of the Roman dolce vita the firm became known among actresses and members of the Italian and international jet-set, bringing the name of Bulgari international renown. By the time Giorgio and Constantino died in 1966 and 1973 respectively, Giorgio’s sons Paolo and Nicola were already involved with the firm, actively steering its business and creative production sides. The 1970s saw the first international expansion of the company with the opening of shops in New York, Geneva, Paris and Monte Carlo. In 2011 Bulgari became part of the LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) luxury group.


Ingrid Bergman on the set of The Visit (1964), wears Bulgari jewels. Credit: Alinari.


Paris, 11 novembre 1962. Bulgari exhibition at Italien Embassy. Claudia Cardinale attendint the event is wearing a platinum necklace all in baguette diamonds witth a central oval diamond of  66 ctsCredit: Olycom.


Model wearing a sautoir in gold with emeralds, rubies and diamonds, by Bulgari, ca 1970. Photo by Gianni Penati - Condenast America.

To mark the celebration of Bulgari’s 125th anniversary in 2009 a series of retrospective exhibitions have been organised which have brought the firm’s creations to cities such as Rome, Paris, Beijing, Tokyo and Shanghai. Madrid, however, is the first venue to focus on the close link between Bulgari’s designs and the art and architecture of Rome, a relationship which in 2014 and to mark the firm’s 130th anniversary led Bulgari to sponsor the restoration of the famous Spanish Steps in the Piazza di Spagna, which were recently reopened to the public. 

Madrid, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, 30 November 2016 to 26 February 2017