Arc de Triomphe

Emperor Napoleon’s Monument to the Glory of France

Arc de TriompheThe Arc de Triomphe, or Arch of Triumph in English, stands in Paris and is famous around the world. It is a great structure that was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon in 1806 to celebrate the military struggles and victories of France. It is a national commemoration to the Nations historical warfare that has occurred in relatively modern times. It uses French classical sculpture at its finest levels to honour the bravery and tenacity of its peoples to protect and preserve French life and culture for all to experience. The Arc de Triomphe is exclusively the property of the French Republic in the purest sense. Visitors to the monument are merely guests of the Nation.

The architectural thread of central Paris is the ‘Historic Axis’. This is the taught and undeviating route that links many of the City’s iconic features. The Louvre museum with its contemporary pyramid stretching far out to the most modern Grande Arch in La Defense, more than 10 kilometres away, can be viewed as though looking through a telescopic sight. 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 Elysees all run as straight as a die with the view piercing the great Arc de Triomphe. The ‘Historic Axis ‘is a prominent symbol of a modern France. The Arc is arguably its most poignant feature.

At the western end of the Avenue des Champs Elysees is the Place Charles de Gaulle. This is where the Arc de Triomphe is located. The position is the focal point of 12 main routes splaying out to all corners of the City. The Arc de Triomphe dominates this confluence from its centre. It is at the hub of Parisian history, culture and influence.

Arc de TriompheThe Arc de Triomphe was originated by Napoleon after his victory at Austerlitz. The very foundations took more than two years to put down. The final construction was not finished until 30 years later. Napoleon had died before it was completed. There were five celebrated architects that were responsible for its creation.

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 presented  ‘La Marseillaise.’ This was sculptured by Rude and is the most famous of the reliefs. It is a personification of the French principal of ‘Liberty’. It depicts French people rallying against foreign intruders. The sculpture is vast and presents a leader brandishing a great sword. The weapon became accidentally detached apparently on the first day of the battle of Verdon during WW1. The damage had to be covered with a canvas to avoid public thoughts of premonition and prediction.

On the west face there are two sculptures by Etex. One is called ‘Peace’ and presents a person returning his sword to his scabbard whilst ordinary people around him return to their work. The other one is titled ‘Resistance.’ It depicts a naked soldier defending his family watched over by a spirit of the future.

Arc de TriompheThe Arc de Triomphe is encrusted with many other sculptures and engravings and all are very moving. 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.

Napoleon commissioned the Arc de Triomphe as a tribute to the French ‘Grande Armee’. It not only commemorates the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars but also presents the French nation to the world. The Arc is a vast structure. It is 50 meters high and 45 meters wide and is an immense French work of great art that can be seen from much of the City.

Napoleon died in exile on the island of Saint Helena in 1821. He was just 51 years old and his remains were returned to France in great ceremony. They were drawn by carriage under the Arc de Triomphe on the way to his final resting place at the Invalides. The body of the literary giant, Victor Hugo, also passed under the Arc as it was taken for burial in the Pantheon during May, 1885.

Arc de TriompheTo 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 ultimately decided to place the remains under and right at the base of the Arc de Triomphe. This occurred on Armistice Day, 1920. An eternal flame was ignited at the tomb and has been burning without interruption since that event. 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 by all visitors and bears a slab with the words,’ Ici Repose Un Soldat Francais Mort Pour La Patrie’.

As a matter of principal and respect since the burial of the Unknown Soldier, 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 they arrived in Paris in 1940.

There was one moment of eccentricity involving the Arc de Triomphe shortly after the Great War had ended. A victory parade was being held on the 7th. August, 1919 during which a certain Charles Godefroy flew his military biplane right under the wide arch of the monument. Observers were impressed, but sadly, the Paris officials were not.

There is a daily service held at six thirty each evening by the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A separate flame is reignited by one of  nine hundred war veteran societies representing the association, La Flamme sous l’Arc de Triomphe.

Arc de TriompheA well supported viewing platform has been constructed as part of the attic of the Triumphant Arch. The view of all of Paris is a great spectacle on a clear day. All of the City can be seen from the grandeur of the ‘Historic Axis’ as far as the Louvre museum beyond the Champs Elysees  and to the Grand Arch in La Defense in the other direction. All of the great architectural features of the Capital stand against the horizon. Inside the Arc, a lift is provided for visitors to travel almost the top. The lift stops at a permanent museum presenting the history of the Arc and the events that are celebrated. There are just a further 43 steps to reach the external viewing platform. When the Arc de Triomphe had been 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.

The Arc de Triomphe at the beginning of the Avenue des Champs Elysees is perhaps the most iconic architectural feature in the Paris City centre. It is a revered symbol of French historical complexity and determination. It presents so much of the recent past of Paris and the Nation itself to the rest of the world. It is the senior central edifice standing for the heritage of France and can be reached using both the RER and Metro train services from anywhere in the City.

For city breaks Silver Travel Advisor recommends Kirker Holidays.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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