A few weeks ago local artist Colleen Patricia Williams educated us about the rich history of her artistic medium--mosaics. This week she dives back in with with more about the history of smalti tiles.
Glass tile has a long history in art; it is believed that the ancient Egyptians were the first to create glass and to use that glass as decorative art. Art historians believe that the use of glass tiles, that lead to smalti, came to Italy from the ancient Egyptians, from the conquests of the Roman Empire. In time, these glass tiles came to be made famous by Byzantium.
In the Byzantine era, mosaics that had traditionally been done with ceramic tiles, came to be done with a new type of tile, called “smalti”. Smalti tiles were, and still are, made of glass with various minerals added to create different “recipes”, that create different types of glass tile. In the Byzantine style, the smalti tiles were carefully set at the best angle to catch the light; to this end, smalti tiles were not grouted, to allow for proper light refraction.
Smalti typically includes air bubbles, as well as often infusions of gold and silver, to create the distinctive look of smalti. Smalti recipes are jealously guarded by the manufacturers of these tiles; this has always been the case with smalti production, because of the fierce competition amongst mosaic artists. Sadly, the peak of historical mosaic work was in the Byzantine Empire and the empire’s fortunes declined in the march of history, so did the art of mosaics and smalti production.
In the 19th century, the art of mosaics experienced a revival that has continued to this day. In the 19th century, the art and designs of Byzantium became popular again, as seen by the mosaic decoration of Westminster Cathedral, in London and in the Sacre Couer in Paris.
With the advent of the 20th century and the Art Nouveau movement, mosaics moved from just decoration into large, sculptural pieces, like those of Antoni Gaudi and Josep Maria Jujol. These pioneers saw the use of waste tile as well as tiles made especially for the purpose of large scale work. Guadi is justly famous for his architecture which often incorporated mosaics. Smalti tiles became an important part of the art world again, experiencing a great resurgence that has continued to this day.
In the 21st century, mosaics have resurged as a fine art form, both in representational works and in the abstract. Mosaics are now sculptural, they are composed of found objects as well as purpose made tiles, like modern smalti. Mosaics are created from small decorative wall pieces, to the large, sculptural pieces on forms created out of substrates from concrete, to plexiglass to shoes, have become fine art with the help of smalti.
At one time, an artist had to go through an apprenticeship process to create a master artist; there are now plenty of classes to teach the budding mosaic artist how to use these tiles, which are now sold to a global market. Mosaic art has come a long way since 4000 BC with the use of rocks and shells to create loose designs, to the magic and beauty of smalti and art glass tiles.
Smalti tiles are still manufactured with the infusions of gold and silver, with secret recipes and with the famous air bubbles. In the manufacture of smalti tiles, molten glass is poured out onto a flat surface into a large pancake then broken by hand into the glass tiles that make up smalti. The breaking process involves not just a glass cutter, but also tile cutters that are able to nip the tiles into the small squares that are used to paint with glass and light.
Stop by Artistic Portland to view and purchase Colleen's own beautifully handcrafted illuminated mosaics.