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.
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.
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.