Archive | September, 2014

The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile

24 Sep

The most monumental of all triumphal arches was constructed between 1806 and 1836. Although it’s original plans underwent a number of modifications reflecting political changes and power struggles, the arch still retains the essence of its original concept as a powerful, unified ensemble.


The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (Arch of Triumph of the Star) is one of the most famous monuments in Paris. It stands in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle (originally named Place de l’Étoile), at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. It should not be confused with a smaller arch, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which stands west of the Louvre. The Arc de Triomphe (in English: “Triumphal Arch”) honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces.


The Arc de Triomphe is the highlight of the Axe historique (historic axis) a sequence of monuments and grand thoroughfares on a route which runs from the courtyard of the Louvre to the Grande Arche de la Défense. The monument was designed by Jean Chalgrin in 1806 and its iconographic program pitted heroically nude French youths against bearded Germanic warriors in chain mail. It set the tone for public monuments, with triumphant patriotic messages.

It’s entire decorative cycle belongs to a high tradition of sculpture of the first half of the 19th century. Figures, friezes and bas-reliefs are works by Jean-Pierre Cortott, Antoine Etex and James Pradier. The most celebrated sculpture is that by Francois Rude, La Marseillaise. It’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier and memorial flame has become a revered patriotic site.


On 15 December 1840, brought back to France from Saint Helena, Napoleon’s remains passed under it on their way to the Emperor’s final resting place at the Invalides. Although it was ordered by Napoleon I, the construction of this triumphal arch was only completed in 1836―15 years after his death―during the reign of French King, Louis Philippe. Prior to burial in the Panthéon, the body of Victor Hugo was exposed under the Arc during the night of 22 May 1885.

The astylar design is by Jean Chalgrin (1739–1811), in the Neoclassical version of ancient Roman architecture (see, for example, the triumphal Arch of Titus). Major academic sculptors of France are represented in the sculpture of the Arc de Triomphe: Jean-Pierre Cortot; François Rude; Antoine Étex; James Pradier and Philippe Joseph Henri Lemaire. The main sculptures are not integral friezes but are treated as independent trophies applied to the vast ashlar masonry masses, not unlike the gilt-bronze appliqués on Empire furniture. The four sculptural groups at the base of the Arc are The Triumph of 1810 (Cortot), Resistance and Peace (both by Antoine Étex) and the most renowned of them all, Departure of the Volunteers of 1792 commonly called La Marseillaise (François Rude). The face of the allegorical representation of France calling forth her people on this last was used as the belt buckle for the honorary rank of Marshal of France. Since the fall of Napoleon (1815), the sculpture representing Peace is interpreted as commemorating the Peace of 1815.

In the attic above the richly sculptured frieze of soldiers are 30 shields engraved with the names of major Revolutionary and Napoleonic military victories. The inside walls of the monument list the names of 660 people, among which are 558 French generals of the First French Empire;[12] the names of those who died in battle are underlined. Also inscribed, on the shorter sides of the four supporting columns, are the names of the major victorious battles of the Napoleonic Wars. The battles that took place in the period between the departure of Napoleon from Elba to his final defeat at Waterloo are not included.


There was at the top of the Arc from 1882 to 1886, a monumental sculpture by Alexandre Falguière, “Le triomphe de la Révolution” (the Triumph of the Revolution), a chariot drawn by horses preparing “to crush Anarchy and Despotism”, that remained only four years up there before falling in ruins.

Inside the monument, a new permanent exhibition conceived by the artist Maurice Benayoun and the architect Christophe Girault opened in February 2007. There are two ways to reach the exhibition, via an elevator that was put into service July 1929 in the north west pillar of the arch. The harder way and probably the more enjoyable way for a fit person is the staircase. There is I’m told 284 steps to reach the viewing platform, I’m sure there are also a few extra sneaky ones as well, there is a stunning 360 degree view of Paris which makes all those steps worthwhile. If you are worried about tight staircases I recommend walking up the staircase of Notre Dame Cathedral first, if you’ve already conquered those you will have no worries. I would also recommend buying the Paris Museum pass, this will get you entry to many of the sites of Paris.


The first time we visited the Arch was on the inauguration of France’s new president in 2012, we were unfortunate enough not to be able to cross under the road as it was already blocked off for the procession coming through, luckily enough we got to see the French flag flying inside the arch. It should be noted we were actually sort of lost, we were in fact looking the the Eiffel Tower, the bus we jumped onto that morning went in the opposite direction towards the Arch by accident, we were able to see it before being crushed by the celebrating crowds later in the morning. Yes we did get to the Eiffel Tower later in the day, and that’s an entirely different story. Obviously the second time was much more productive.