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How Napoleon’s Arc de Triomphe Became a Symbol of Paris

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As far as iconic Paris landmarks go, it’s a toss-up between the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. If the Eiffel Tower boasts more T-shirts and wall art bearing its image, the Arc de Triomphe has given us some great film scenes with cars circling (and circling) it. That’s because it’s located within a circular plaza where 12 avenues, including the Champs-Elysées, meet.

Originally called Place de l’Étoile (Square of the Star) because of its starlike formation, the plaza was renamed Place de Charles de Gaulle in 1970 after the 20th century French president. But it was a different leader we have to thank for the Arc de Triomphe, and he is just as much a symbol of France as the structure he commissioned.


Why the Arc de Triomphe Was Built

The triumphal arch was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz and to “glorify the Grand Army” in general, according to Napoleon.org. Construction started in 1806, with the first stone laid on Aug. 15.

The arch, which Napoleon planned to ride through at the head of his victorious army, was inspired by the Arch of Titus in Rome. But the French version would be much more impressive at 164 feet (50 meters) high and 148 feet (45 meters) wide compared to that of Titus, which is just 50 feet (15 meters) high and 44 feet (13 meters) wide.


“Napoleon was known for never doing things on the cheap and thinking big,” says W. Jude LeBlanc, associate professor at the school of architecture at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

The emperor called on architect Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin, who had spent some years in Rome and had previously worked on a project for Versailles and churches like Saint-Philippe-du-Roule and the Church of Saint-Sulpice.


How Long It Took to Build the Arc de Triomphe

Perhaps Napoleon and Chalgrin were too ambitious in their proportions because the Neoclassical arch took 30 years to complete, although work was not continuous. In fact, it took more than two years just to lay the foundation.

It wasn’t finished when Napoleon married his second wife, Marie-Louise de Habsburg-Lorraine, in 1810. As a substitute, he had a full-size replica crafted from wood, so he and his 19-year-old bride could pass under it.


Ironically, neither Napoleon nor Chalgrin saw the structure reach completion. Chalgrin died in 1811, and his former pupil Louis-Robert Goust took over the project. But in 1814, Napoleon abdicated, and work on the structure slowed to a crawl if it took place at all.

The monarchy was reinstated, and King Louis XVIII resumed work on the Arc de Triomphe in 1823, with the project finally being inaugurated in 1836 by King Louis-Philippe.

Although Napoleon didn’t get see his completed triumphal arch, he did pass through it. When his body was returned to France in 1840 (he died on the island of Saint Helena in 1821), it was brought to les Invalides and passed under the Arc de Triomphe on the way there.


The Arc’s Parisian Placement

The Arc de Triomphe and Place de Charles de Gaulle sit along the Axe Historique (Historical Axis) of Paris, which extends from the Louvre Museum to La Défense. The triumphal arch isn’t the only one along the axis. At one end, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which was modeled on the Roman arches of Septimius and Constantine, sits between the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden. That one is about a third of the size and was also commissioned by Napoleon.

At the far end of the axis, La Grand Arche was built “as a strong unifying symbol for the bicentenary of the French Revolution” in 1989 and was a project French President François Mitterand. It was designed by Johan Otto V. Spreckelsen and is more than double the size of the Arc de Triomphe.


With all these arches in Paris and around the world, what makes the Arc de Triomphe special?

“I don’t know that it was structurally novel,” says LeBlanc. Arches were well known at the time it was made, although Napoleon’s was particularly massive. “What was unique was that it didn’t have pilasters and columns.”

The Arc includes many notable sculptures, with work by artists François Rude, Jean-Pierre Cortot and Antoine Etex on the pillars. Other surfaces include additional reliefs and the names of generals and battles.

Beneath the Arc de Triomphe are the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, added in 1921, and the eternal flame, which is rekindled each evening. Due to its scale, the Arc de Triomphe is known for offering one of the best views of the city from the observation deck at the top.

Some years before the French Revolution, architect Charles Ribart submitted a proposal to build a monument to Louis XV in the place where the Arc de Triomphe now stands. His concept was a three-story elephant with rooms inside and a trunk that would water surrounding gardens.


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