They were discovered in 1881 just outside Mdina in the remains of a rich and sumptuously decorated town house of the Roman period.
These remarkably fine polychrome mosaic pavements were uncovered during the first excavations at the site. At that time, the architectural elements of the building were restored and a number of rooms constructed over the remains to protect the mosaics.
The site was investigated further between 1920 and 1924 by Sir Themistocles Zammit, Malta’s first Director of Museums. An upper hall was added to the existing museum so as to provide more exhibition space and a more suitable entrance. Its neo-classical façade with a small front garden was completed in 1925.
The mosaics are composed using two techniques. Small cubes of marble or stone are embedded closely together in cement in a reticular manner. The very minuteness of the pieces, which are not always set in straight lines but vary in direction to suit the artist’s requirements, brought out greater definition in the work which sought to imitate painting.
Parts of these mosaics were created by highly-skilled artists working in specialized workshops notably at Pergamum in Asia Minor, Antioch in Syria and Alexandria in Egypt, and were exported for setting in mosaic floors finished off on the spot by itinerant or local artists.
The mosaic pavement surrounded by a Doric peristyle can be found in the lower floor of the museum. The pavement shows two doves perched on the rim of a bowl. Other extremely fine mosaics were found in the adjoining rooms. One image shows a charming little boy holding a bunch of grapes in one hand and a pomegranate in the other. The iconography is generally taken as an allegorical representation of autumn. Another equally fine mosaic was the centrepiece of the mosaic pavement in what seems to have been the main entrance to the building. It shows a nude male figure held fast by two women.
The best tradition of Hellenistic pictorial culture, together with the extremely fine technique, undoubtedly qualify the mosaic compositions of the Roman house in Rabat among the finest examples of Hellenistic mosaic art, dating probably from the first quarter of the first century B.C.
The Roman House also has an exhibition of artefacts which bear witness to the rich material culture and flourishing Roman civilisation in Malta.
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