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History of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris

Arc de Triomphe History

The Arc de Triomphe is one of the most famous monuments in Paris and was commissioned in 1806 after the victory at Austerlitz by Emperor Napoleon I.

It took two years just to lay the foundations and in 1810 when Napoleon entered Paris from the west with his bride, Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, he had a wooden mock-up of the completed arch constructed.

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History of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris

The work was taken over by Huyon, after the architect and designer, Jean Chalgrin, died in 1811. Unfortunately construction was halted and would not be completed until the reign of King Louis-Philippe, in 1833 to1836.  This was under the direction of Hericart de Thury and the architects on site were Goust then Huyot.

The sculpture representing Peace is now interpreted as commemorating the Peace of 1815, which was not the original intention.

The Astylar design in the Neoclassical version of ancient Roman architecture is by Jean Chalgrin.  Major academic sculptors of France are represented in the sculpture of the Arc de Triomphe, namely Cortot, Rude, Étex, Pradier and Lemaire.  And the main sculptures are treated as independent trophies applied to the vast masonry masses.

The four sculptural groups at the base of the Arc de Triomphe are the triumph of 1810 by Jean-Pierre Cortot, Resistance and Peace, both by Antoine Etex.

The most renowned of them all, the Departure of the Volunteers, which is commonly called La Marseillaise, is by Francois Rude.  And it was the face of the allegorical representation of France calling forth her people on this last sculptural group that was used as the belt buckle for the seven-star rank of Marshal of France.

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 558 French generals with the names of those who died in battle being underlined.  Also inscribed on the shorter sides of the four supporting columns, are the names of the major battles of the Napoleonic wars.   Yet the battles that took place in the period between the departure of Napoleon from Elba and his final defeat at Waterloo are not included.

The sword carried by the Republic in the Marseillaise relief broke off, apparently on the day that the Battle of Verdun began in 1916.  Tarpaulins to conceal the accident, and to avoid any undesired or ominous interpretations, were immediately put in place to hide the problem.


Beneath the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from the First World War and France took the example from the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey in the United Kingdom.

It was originally decided in November 12, 1919 to bury the unknown soldier's remains in the Pantheon, but a public letter-writing campaign led to the decision to bury him beneath the Arc.

Interred on Armistice Day 1920, it has the first eternal flame lit in Western Europe since the Vestal Virgins' fire was extinguished in the year 391 and it burns in memory of the dead who were never identified, now in both World War I and World War II.

The coffin was put in the chapel on the first floor of the Arc on 10 November 1920, and put in its final resting place on 28 January 1921.  The slab on top carries the inscription "Here lies a French soldier who died for his fatherland 1914-1918".

A ceremony is held there every year on 11 November on the anniversary of the armistice which was signed between France and Germany in 1918.

There are many famous victory marches that have past the Arc de Triomphe and include the Germans in 1871, the French in 1918, the Germans in 1940, and the French and Allies in 1944 and 1945.


History of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris



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