Arc de Triomphe, Paris: France honouring her soldiers!

The Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe

Updated On: May 28, 2024 by   Aya RadwanAya Radwan

Built in honour of those who gave their lives for the freedom of their beloved country in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the Arc de Triomphe has the names of all the battle victories and the generals inscribed on its surface. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier commemorates soldiers who died in the First World War.

Known to some by its other name; Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, the Arc de Triomphe is a famous Parisian monument known to anyone who read about the city. The Arc stands at the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle, once known as Place de l’Étoile.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris illuminated at night
Arc de Triomphe, Paris, illuminated at night.

The Arc de Triomphe and its plaza combine the 16th arrondissement to the south and west, the 17th to the north, and the 18th to the east. It stands at the western end of the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

The Arc is considered the centrepiece of the Axe Historique, or a Historical Axis, a line of monuments, landmarks, and thoroughfares on the same route starting from the courtyard of the Louvre and ending at the Grande Arche de la Defense.

People walking close to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel
People walking close to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel

The title of the world’s tallest arch was snatched from the Arc de Triomphe with the building of Mexico’s Monumento a la Revolución, the world’s tallest arch, and the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, which is the world’s second tallest arch.

In this article, we’ll learn everything about the Arc de Triomphe, from its history to nearby events!

Let’s go!

History of the Arc de Triomphe

The arch’s selected location is on the right bank of the River Seine. Architect Jean Chalgrin was commissioned to build it after winning one of the most critical battles of the Napoleonic Wars, Austerlitz, in 1806. Setting the foundations alone took two years, and inspiration was drawn from the Arch of Titus in Rome.

Under Chalgrin’s supervision, a complete mock-up of the arch was constructed. It welcomed Napoleon and his new wife, Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria when they entered Paris from the West in 1810. After Jean Chalgrin died in 1811, architect Jean-Nicolas Huyot took over the work.

The Arc de Triomphe in the 19th century

Construction on the arch stopped during the Bourbon Restoration. It wasn’t resumed until after the July Revolution and the enthronement of King Louis-Philippe in 1830. The building was then finished between 1833 and 1836 under the direction of the French politician Héricart de Thury.

When Napoleon’s remains returned from Saint Helena, they were brought back to France and passed under the arch in 1840. They eventually reached their final resting place at the Les Invalides. Also, writer Victor Hugo’s body was displayed under the arch before reaching its resting place at the Pantheon.

Architectural details of the Arc

Jean Chalgrin designed the arch in a Neoclassical alteration, using Roman Architecture as a reference, hence the astylar design. The Arch is 50 meters high, 45 meters wide, and 22 meters deep. It has several vaults. The larger one is 29.19 meters high and 14.62 meters wide. The smaller vaults are 18.68 meters high and 8.44 meters wide.

The sculptural work on the pillars of the arch represents some of France’s most renowned architects, and they also crafted some of the sculptures depicted on the arch.

Some of these sculptors and their works include Jean-Pierre Cortot with the sculptures of the Triumph of 1810, François Rude and his work of the Departure of the Volunteers of 1792, also known as La Marseillaise.

The sculptures of Resistance and Peace are both works of Antoine Étex. The four sculptural groups are located at the base of the arch. Interpretation of the sculpture of Peace changed to commemorating the Peace of 1815.

  • La Marseillaise—François Rude: This sculptural group celebrates the French First Republic during the August 10th Uprising. At its top, a winged personification of Liberty was placed, and it served as an essential tool to encourage the French to invest in war loans in 1915 and 1916.
  • Le Triomphe de 1810—Jean-Pierre Cortot: This group celebrates the Treaty of Schönbrunn, or as it is sometimes referred to, the Treaty of Vienna, featuring Napoleon as the goddess of Victory crowning him.
  • La Résistance de 1814 – Antoine Étex: In commemoration of the resistance of the French to the Allied Armies during the War of the Sixth Coalition.
  • La Paix de 1815 – Antoine Étex: Commemorating the Treaty of Paris, sometimes known as the Second Treaty of Paris, signed in 1815.

The reliefs on the façades depicting significant moments in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars include:

  • Les funérailles du général Marceau (The burial of General Marceau).
  • La bataille d’Aboukir (The Battle of Aboukir).
  • La bataille de Jemappes (The Battle of Jemappes).
  • Le passage du pont d’Arcole (The Battle of Arcole).
  • La prise d’Alexandrie (The Fall of Alexandria).
  • La bataille d’Austerlitz  (The Battle of Austerlitz).

Names to Remember inscribed on the Arc de Triomphe

The names of prominent French victories in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars were engraved on 30 shields, constituting the sculptured frieze above the attic. The names of 660 people, of which 558 names belong to French generals who gave their lives during wars of the First French Republic, are inscribed on the inside walls of the monument.

The names of the most famous victories during the Napoleonic Wars were inscribed on the shorter walls of the supporting columns. However, the names of the battles that took place between Napoleon’s departure from Elba and his ultimate defeat in Waterloo are not included.

The massive arches of the arc are decorated with sculptures and allegorical figures depicting different characters in Roman mythology. The ceiling of the arc is decorated with 21 sculpted roses. Several plaques, including the Plaque of the Proclamation of the Republic and the De Gaulle Speech Plaque, are positioned at the foot of the arc.

Le Triomphe de la Révolution (The Triumph of the Revolution) was a sculpture depicting a chariot drawn by horses in preparation to crush Anarchy and Despotism, which Alexandre Falguière made. The sculpture stood on top of the arch for four years between 1882 and 1886 before it fell into ruins.

Arc de Triomphe Street Sign - Paris
Arc de Triomphe Street Sign – Paris

The Arc de Triomphe in the 20th century

One of the most exciting and news-covered events at the Arc was the French aviator Charles Godefroy’s biplane flying under the arch on 7 August 1919. In the beginning, another pilot, Jean Navarre, was scheduled to make the trip, but he crashed while rehearsing for the event.

It was only natural that such a symbolic monument would become an integral part of any marching parades, especially victory parades. Victorious French troops would march to and through the Arc, and it became part of the celebrations for Bastille Day by the Bastille Day Military Parade.

Some of the most famous parades include the Germans in 1871 and 1940, the French in 1919, and the Allies in 1944 and 1945. However, after the interment of the Unknown Soldier in 1921, troops ceased to march through the Arc, and parades would march up to the Arc, circle it and continue their march.

Coal soot and car exhausts blackened the structure of the Arc until the 1960s when the process of cleaning and bleaching the monument took place.

Later in the 1980s, the line of monuments constituting Paris’ Axe Historique was completed by the building of the Grande Arche de la Défense. The three arches on the Historical Axis include the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile and the Grande Arche de la Défense built in 1982.

Close-up at the statues atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel - French Flag waving in the background
Close-up at the statues atop the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel – French Flag waving in the background

The Arc de Triomphe in the 21st century

A permanent exhibition discussing the history of the Arc was opened inside the monument in 2007. The exhibition, under the supervision of artist Maurice Benayoun and architect Christophe Girault, questions the symbolism of the Arc and the balance of its symbolic message, particularly during the past two centuries.

During the Yellow Vests Movement in 2018, vandals distorted the façades of the Arc by spraying graffiti and ransacked its small museum.

L’Arc de Triomphe – Wrapped!

This unique project has been a dream of artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude since the 1960s when Christo lived close to the Arc. The duo is known for their large-scale wrapping of public monuments, and their previous works include Wrapped Reichstag in Berlin and the Gates in New York.

Arc de Triomphe Wrapped project
Arc de Triomphe Wrapped project

Even though Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, Christo began actual planning for the project only in 2018. It was scheduled to be finished by spring 2020 but was later delayed until September 2020 to wait for the finishing of the Kestrel falcons, which nest in the monument during the spring.

The project was self-funded through the sale of project documentation such as drawings and models. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the project was again delayed, and Christo died in May 2020. However, news outlets announced that the project would proceed until it was eventually finished in September 2021.

L’Arc de Triomphe – Wrapped is the wrapping of the Arc using 25,000 square meters of silver-blue and recyclable polypropylene fabric put together using 3,000 meters of red rope. The project went on for two weeks.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc de Triomphe

The tomb was installed beneath the Arc on Armistice Day back in 1920. On top of the tomb burns, the first eternal flame to be lit in Western and Eastern Europe after the Vestal Virgins fire was put out in the 4th century. The flame burns in memory of those who were never identified during World Wars.

Every year, 11 November is held at the tomb to commemorate the signing of the Armistice of 11 November 1918. Initially, it was argued that the Unknown Soldier’s remains should be put in the Pantheon. However, a campaign of written letters objected to the idea, eventually leading to the burial beneath the Arc.

On 10 November 1920, the coffin of the soldier was put in the chapel of the first floor of the Arc. On 21 January the following year, the coffin was laid in its final resting place in the tomb. The inscription on the tomb reads “ICI REPOSE UN SOLDAT FRANÇAIS MORT POUR LA PATRIE 1914–1918” or “Here lies a French soldier who died for the Fatherland 1914 – 1918”.

Avenues fanning out of the Arc de Triomphe

The Arc stands in the centre of Place de Gaulle, the meeting point of 12 avenues. The square’s dodecagonal configuration explains its former name: Place de l’Étoile or Square of the Star. The name was changed in 1970 after President Charles de Gaulle’s death.

Another way to look at it is that the 12 avenues fan out of the Arch. The names of these avenues are:

  • Avenue de Wagram.
  • Avenue Hoche.
  • Avenue de Friedland.
  • Avenue des Champs-Élysées.
  • Avenue Marceau.
  • Avenue d’Iéna.
  • Avenue Kléber.
  • Avenue Victor Hugo.
  • Avenue Foch.
  • Avenue de la Grande-Armée.
  • Avenue Carnot.
  • Avenue Mac-Mahon.

Bastille Day Parade Passing the Arc de Triomphe

Every year, on the morning of 14 July, the Bastille Day Military Parade, also known as the 14th July Military Parade, takes place. The parade has taken place almost without any exceptions since 1880. It is mirrored by smaller parades in France’s garrison cities, such as Marseille, Toulon, Brest, Rochefort, and Belfot.

The parade consists of around 9,500 soldiers, 380 vehicles, 240 horses, and a bit more than 80 planes and helicopters. It marches down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées after passing by Place de Gaulle and the Arc de Triomphe.

Have you ever visited the Arc de Triomphe? Please share your experience with us in the comments, and let us know if we’ve missed anything!

The Arc de Triomphe is on our list of top recommendations for monuments to visit in our list of the Best 10 Destinations for the Best Christmas Celebrations and our Ultimate Western Europe landmarks’ Guide! Our 24 Hours in Paris video is a must-watch for a video guide!

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