The history of the Arc de Triomphe Paris: The Arch of Triumph, it’s English translation, was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte. It is a symbol of Paris, its presence so strong that even Hitler walked round it not through it. And it’s claimed that Jackie Kennedy was so inspired by her visit, she recreated an Eternal Flame to commemorate President Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery.
The Historic Axis of Paris
The architectural thread of central Paris is the ‘Historic Axis’. It’s essentially a route of monuments that links many of the City’s iconic features. The precisely aligned route runs from the Louvre museum stretching far out to the modern Grande Arch in La Defense, more than 10 kilometres away. Along this line rest many prominent features. The Arc du Carrousel, the Tuileries gardens, the Obelisque in Place de la Concorde and the Avenue des Champs-Elysées. They are set on a straight line, with the view piercing the Arc de Triomphe.
Located at the Place Charles de Gaulle, the Arc de Triomphe is the focal point of 12 main routes splaying out to all corners of the City. It is at the hub of Parisian history, culture and influence.
The Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon after his victory at Austerlitz the year before. Just to finish the foundations took more than two years, and the final construction wasn’t complete until 30 years later. It was the culmination of designs by no less than 5 celebrated architects including Jean-Francois Chalgrin who was inspired by the Roman Arch of Titus. Napoleon died before it was completed, but his body passed beneath it on its way to a final resting place at Les Invalides.
Inaugurated on 29 July 1836 by King Louis Philippe, it was dedicated to the armies of the Revolution and the Empire.
Inside the Arc, a lift it goes almost to the top, to a permanent museum presenting the history of the Arc. There are just a further 43 steps to reach the external viewing platform. From here the view over Paris is a great spectacle. On a clear day you can see as far as the Louvre museum, beyond the Champs-Elysées and to the Grand Arch in La Defense in the other direction.
Details of the sculptures on the Arc de Triomphe
On the east facing side of the Arc, there are two principal sculptures. They are not carved from the structure itself but placed as separately created features onto the face. On the left side is Cortot’s ‘The Triumph of Napoleon.’ It portrays a cloaked Napoleon wearing a laurel wreath with a city surrendering at his feet. On the right side is ‘La Marseillaise’ sculptured by Rude, the most famous of the reliefs. It is a personification of the French principal of ‘Liberty’, depicting a rally against foreign intruders. You can see the plaster model in Dijon where Rude was from
On the west face there are two sculptures by Etex. One is called ‘Peace’ and presents a man returning his sword to his scabbard whilst ordinary people around him return to their work. The other is titled ‘Resistance’, a naked soldier defending his family watched over by a spirit of the future.
The Arc de Triomphe is encrusted with many other sculptures and engravings. On the high attic, supported by four vast supporting columns, there is a finely sculptured frieze of soldiers in battle. There are also 30 badges engraved with the names of major French victories in the Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. The names of over 600 people involved in the battles are carved on the inside walls. Over 500 of these were Generals of the First French Empire and those who were killed have their names underlined. The ceiling of the arch is covered by 21 roses. There is much other symbolic and representative classical artwork based on the ancient Roman artistic style decorating the splendid edifice.
When the Arc de Triomphe was completed in 1836, a magnificent sculpture entitled ‘Triumph of the Revolution’ was erected on the roof of the attic. This lasted only about four years however before it collapsed. It has never been replaced.
To commemorate the fallen of the Great War, the French Government agreed to inter the body of a randomly selected soldier killed in battle. It was decided to place the remains at the base of the Arc de Triomphe on Armistice Day, 1920. An eternal flame was ignited at the tomb and has been burning without interruption since then. Each year on November 11th a state ceremony is held and attended by the most senior French officials to remember the fallen of both World Wars. The vault can be viewed and bears a slab with the words,’ Ici Repose Un Soldat Francais Mort Pour La Patrie’.
As a matter of principal and respect, no further military or official parades have been permitted to pass under the Arc de Triomphe. As they approach, they divide and pass on either side. Even Hitler, with his invading forces, respected this when he arrived in Paris in 1940.
A daily service takes place at 18.30 at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A separate flame is reignited by one of 900 war veteran societies representing the association, La Flamme sous l’Arc de Triomphe.
Bob Lyons is an ex pilot turned travel writer.