The Arch of triumph, another emblematic monument in Paris

The Arch of triumph is a famous monument located in Paris, at the western end of the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Built between 1806 and 1836, at the request of Napoleon I, the Arch of triumph stands in the center of the Place Charles-de-Gaulle, formerly known as the Place de l’Etoile. 49.54 meters high and 44.82 meters wide, the Arch of triumph is placed in the center of a huge traffic circle where 12 major Parisian avenues meet. Managed by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux, the Arch of triumph welcomes more than 2 million visitors from all over the world every year! Its panoramic terrace offers a breathtaking view of the most beautiful tourist sites of the capital, such as the Eiffel Tower, the Sacré-Coeur or the Louvre Museum. In this article, we will look at the history of the Arch of triumph, its architecture and the sculptures that adorn its facades, while stopping on the major events that have marked the monument.

The Arch of triumph of Paris stands in the center of the Place Charles-de-Gaulle
The Arch of triumph of Paris stands in the center of the Place Charles-de-Gaulle

The history of the Arch of triumph of Paris

In an imperial decree dated February 18, 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte, then the first Emperor of France, ordered the construction of an Arch of triumph to perpetuate the memory of the victories of the French armies after the battle of Austerlitz. Napoleon thus declared to the French that they would only return to their homes “under triumphal arches”, in reference to the monuments erected under the Roman Empire. The Arch of triumph thus allows to commemorate a victorious general marching at the head of his troops. Initially, Napoleon Bonaparte wished to erect the monument at the entrance of the boulevards near the Bastille, which would allow access to the faubourg Saint-Antoine by passing under the arch. The Emperor also wanted to make it the starting point of a triumphal avenue linking the Louvre to the Place de la Bastille. But on the wise advice of the Minister of the Interior Champagny, the latter convinced the Emperor to erect the future Arch of triumph on the Place de l’Etoile, offering better prospects. For its construction, the architect Jean-François Chalgrin was chosen and he was inspired by the Tetrapyle arches of Janus and Titus located in Rome. The first stone was laid for the birthday of Emperor Napoleon I, on August 15, 1806. It will take two years to build the foundations of the Arch of triumph, which are 55 meters long, 27 meters wide and 7.5 meters deep. As early as 1810, the 4 pillars were emerging from the ground and in 1811, the architect Chalgrin died. The construction work was also abandoned during the Restoration period (1814-1815) and it was not until 1823 that the work was resumed under Louis XVIII, because the monument had to be ready for the victorious commemoration of Spain. In 1830, Louis Philippe resumed the work respecting the project imagined by Napoleon Bonaparte, but associating the armies that fought between 1792 and 1815. A spectacular frieze is erected at the top of the Arch of triumph, divided into two parts, on one side the departure of the armies, on the other side, the return of the armies, with a long scene in the center to the glory of the French nation. The Arch of triumph was finally inaugurated for the sixth anniversary of the two glorious events, on July 29, 1836. Classified as a historical monument since 1896, the Arch of triumph was also used as a place of meditation during Victor Hugo’s funeral where his coffin was exposed for one night.

Every evening since 1923, the flame of the tomb of the unknown soldier is rekindled
Every evening since 1923, the flame of the tomb of the unknown soldier is rekindled

The Arch of triumph of Paris and the tomb of the unknown soldier

On January 28, 1921, the remains of the unknown soldier killed during the First World War were buried under the Arch of triumph. In 1923, André Maginot, Minister of War, supported the project to install a flame of remembrance there, which was lit for the first time on November 11, 1923. Like the Eternal Flame at the Altar of the Fatherland in Rome, this flame commemorates the memory of the fallen and is never extinguished. Every evening at 6:30 p.m., the flame is rekindled by various associations composed of victims of war or veterans. Even on June 14, 1940, the day the Germans entered Paris and marched on the Place de l’Etoile, the flame was rekindled, in agreement with them. On the slab of the tomb of the unknown soldier, one can read “here lies a soldier who died for his country, 1914-1918”.

The sculptures on the monument

With its 4 doors, the Arch of triumph is a tetrapyle monument whose facades are decorated with multiple sculptures. In front of the main facades of the straight legs are sculptures in relief, each resting on pedestals. Above, a first band is made of friezes of Greeks and a protruding cornice. The second register is animated by large frames decorated with stones including a frieze, under a second projecting cornice. Finally, the third register, which crowns the monument, is an important floor decorated with 30 shields.

  • The 4 sculptures that rest on pedestals measure 18 meters. These sculptures symbolize the departure of the volunteers of 1792, the triumph of 1810, the resistance of 1814 and the peace of 1815.
  • The 6 bas-reliefs engraved on the faces of the Arch of triumph represent the funeral of General Marceau, the battle of Aboukir, the battle of Jemappes, the crossing of the Arcole bridge, the capture of Alexandria and the battle of Austerlitz.
  • The attic decorated with 30 shields: on these 30 shields are engraved the names of the great battles.
  • The bas-relief of the frieze of the great entablature: this frieze symbolizes the departure and return of the armies. Under the frieze, above the large arcades, are characters from Roman mythology.

On the inner faces of the pillars of the great arches are engraved the 158 names of the great battles of the French Revolution and the Empire. The small arcades represent the infantry through allegorical figures. The Arch of triumph is also encircled by 100 studs symbolizing the 100 days, the period of history between the return of Napoleon I to France and the dissolution of the Napoleon II commission (March 1, 1815 – July 7, 1815).

Highlights at the Arch of triumph of Paris

  • December 15, 1840: During the transfer of the ashes of Napoleon Bonaparte who died in 1821, the procession passed under the Arch of triumph.
  • May 22, 1885: before being buried in the Pantheon, the body of Victor Hugo lay in state under the Arch of triumph for one night. Also on this occasion, the monument is partially covered with black crepe.
  • August 7, 1919: Charles Godefroy, an aviation ace, succeeded in flying under the Arch of triumph in a Nieuport 17 biplane. This feat was featured in Robert Enrico’s famous film “Les aventuriers”.
  • November 11, 1940: this date is marked by a student demonstration on the Champs-Elysées and in front of the Arch of triumph, symbolizing one of the first signs of resistance during the occupation and which was severely repressed by the Nazis.
  • August 11, 1991: an unidentified pilot managed to achieve a double feat on board his plane by flying under the Arch of triumph and the Eiffel Tower.
  • 1997: an Australian defies the authorities by trying to cook a fried egg on the flame of the unknown soldier !
  • December 1, 2018: the Arch of triumph is heavily damaged during a demonstration organized by the yellow vests.
  • September 18, 2021: In homage to the artist Christo and his temporary works for the public space, the Arch of triumph is completely covered with bluish silver canvases during 2 weeks. This posthumous work imagined by the artist dates back to 1961, when he made a model in the form of a photomontage of the Arch of triumph in its packaging.

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