The remains of this extensive, rich Roman town house and its mosaic pavements were discovered in 1881 during the planting of trees on the Knights of St John’s glacis just outside Mdina. The remains of this townhouse were uncovered during the first season of excavation and the importance of the find was such that a few years later a number of rooms were constructed above the remains to host what was then called the Museum of Roman Antiquities.
The site was investigated further between 1920 and 1924 by Sir Themistocles Zammit, Malta’s first Director of Museums. These new excavation uncovered numerous subsidiary buildings flanking a rutted street that turns a 90 degree angle. Excavations were also carried out in the fields to the east of the Domus, showing that the remains of buildings continued on this side of the road leading to the Mtarfa train station. Of great importance for the history and use of the site is the fact that most of the area covering the Domus and the buildings around it was used as a burial ground during the Muslim period. A number of built graves were uncovered in an area which at the time would have been just outside the recently reduced city of Medina.
During the excavations by |ammit, an upper hall was added to the existing museum so as to provide more exhibition space and a more suitable entrance, the neo-classical façade and front garden of which were completed in 1925.
The best features of this Roman Domus are its well-made polychrome mosaics found in the Peristyle and the surrounding rooms. The mosaics were constructed using two types of tesserae. The first type, opus vermiculatum, is composed of very small tesserae placed in worm-like fashion and was mainly used for the emblemata (picture) in the centre of the pavement. The second type, opus tesselatum, composed using larger tesserae to create beautiful, three-dimensional designs. Both techniques were laid down with extremely fine workmanship to bring out greater definition in the work which sought to imitate painted motifs.
The mosaic pavement of the central courtyard, which was once surrounded by a Doric peristyle, is the most representative of the whole site. The centre piece of this meandered pavement shows two doves perched on the rim of a bowl, a highly popular motif the origins of which may be traced to a painting by an artist from Sophos. One other extremely fine emblema found in one of the adjoining rooms shows a charming little boy holding a bunch of grapes in one hand and a pomegranate in the other. The iconography of this emblema is generally taken as an allegorical representation of autumn. An equally fine emblema of opus vermiculatum showing a nude male figure held fast by two women was also found in the centre of what would have originally been the first reception room of the house.
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, ranking among the finest and oldest mosaic compositions from the western Mediterranean alongside those of Pompeii and Sicily.
The mosaic pavements were once complimented by fine painted wall plaster imitating coloured marbles and showing partly stylized architectural elements which would place them somewhere between the 1st and 2nd Pompeian Styles. The central courtyard was also surrounded by a corridor (peristyle) flanked on the outer side by well-carved Doric columns above which ran an elegant, originally partly painted Doric entablature. The present pillars are all situated on the original locations of the columns surrounding this courtyard and parts of an original column and entablature have been reconstructed within the 20th century structure.
Source: Heritage Malta