Bulgari’s Serpenti first slithered onto the scene in the late 1940s, its coiling bracelet watches distinctively setting the Roman maison apart from the dominant Parisian fashions of the time. Vice chairman Nicola Bulgari has called the motif a ‘constant source of creative nourishment’, while collectors too seem ever-seduced: cue the two bejewelled 1960s designs that sold at Christie’s Geneva last November for over CHF700,000, nearly twice their estimates.

The snake is now the subject of an exhibition being staged by Bulgari in the splendid, neoclassical surrounds of the Museum of Rome, Palazzo Braschi. Dramatic staircases and 18th century plasterwork form a fitting backdrop for Serpentiform: Snake Through Art, Jewellery and Design that spans ancient to modern and celebrates the time-honoured theme through a host of artistic mediums.

Millennia-old gems on loan from the Archaeological Museum of Naples include gold Pompeii bracelets that are simplistic yet powerfully talismanic. But it's the contemporary works – art, sculpture, photography, even interiors pieces – that offer the most eclectic mix, and highlight what curator Lucia Bosaini calls ‘a creative and multifaceted journey into the imagination’ with a ‘playful take’.

Here one finds Niki de Saint Phalle’s joyous Pouf Serpent Jaune, the vibrant sculpture-cum-design objet originally a riff off tarot cards and Saint Phalle’s fascination with ancient mythology and symbols of femininity. Joana Vasconcelos is too drawn to womanhood and identity, as seen in her subdued, crochet-covered ceramic Estefania 2014. Alexander Calder’s Mois Mondial du Coeur lithograph, with its almost naïve-art expression of love, is a dynamic echo for the jeweller ­– while Keith Haring’s fun and frivolous USA 19-82 and Fortunato Depero’s coolly graphic Quattro further lighten up the mood. Home décor pieces glide in too, such as the aptly sea-green Fornasetti rug. A book encapsulating the ophidian interpretations of 32 famed artists, from the 19th century to today, complements the show.

There is also vintage fashion to savour, including Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra regalia and costumes worn in Puccini and Verdi operas. But the real showstoppers are the archival Bulgari Serpenti creations from the last 50 years – among them a daring 1972 gold Tubogas bracelet-watch and an elegant emerald and diamond design. The latter is from 1969 but looks as timeless and chic as ever.