|The Arc de Triomphe today on the Place de Charles de Gaulle.|
In many ways the ceremonial inauguration of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (Triumphant Arch of the Star) on July 29, 1836 was a peculiar affair. The man that the epic monument was built to honor, Napoléon Bonaparte, had suffered his ultimate defeat and exile 21 years earlier and had been dead for 15 years. Work on the victory arch that he had first ordered constructed at the height of his power in 1806 had dragged on for years and then was suspended by the Bourbon Restoration under Louis XVIII.
But Louis Philippe I, son of the former Duc de Orléans, and thus a member of the cadet branch of the House of Bourbon, had served with distinction in the army of Revolutionary France and after a period of exile had returned to favor. He carefully maneuvered his way to being named King of the French in 1830 after the abdication of the unpopular Charles X. Now he ruled as a popular liberal monarch with support from all but the most hidebound royalists, many former Bonapartists, and, for the time being, the common people of Paris. The king wanted to restore the former glory of France and have a national monument enshrining its greatness. He ordered work on the arch resumed in 1833 and that it be completed essentially as originally intended. So it was that a Bourbon king was on hand for the gala inauguration of a Bonapartist memorial.
But Louis Philippe may have been onto something. The French yearned for the return to past glories, Beyond Napoléon it quickly became a national symbol and remains one to this day. And along with the Eifel Tower it is one of the most internationally familiar images of Paris.
Napoléon commissioned the Arch in 1806 right after one of his greatest victories, Austerlitz at which he crushed Russian and Hapsburg armies resulting in the end of the ancient Germanic Holy Roman Empire and the destruction of the Third Coalition against France.
He had in mind, of course the triumphal arches of ancient Rome which dated back to Roman Republic when victorious generals were granted triumphs by the Senate—the right to enter the Capitol at the head of their Legions for a parade in front of the citizens and the presentation of the traditional crown of laurel. The victor, at his own expense, was allowed to erect an arch then known as a fornix. The earliest arches were apparently temporary structures, perhaps made of wood. By the time of the arches constructed for Lucius Steritinus in 196 BCE for his victories in Hispania (Spain) and over Scipio Africanus in 190 BCE on the Capitoline Hill they were solid, permanent masonry constructions festooned with statuary and bas relief commemorating the victory. No examples of these Republican arches remained in the early 18th Century.
Beginning with Augustus triumphs were reserved for Emperors lest generals become too popular and challenge the rule of the Caesars—which in fact would largely become the history of the later Empire. The Senate alone could confer a Triumph and paid for the construction of the structures now referred to as arcus. They were no longer gates in a wall, as was usual earlier, but free standing monuments usually straddling an important roads under which the Emperor and his Legions would march.
|The Arch of Titus in Rome was the inspiration for the Arc de Triomphe.|
Several triumphal arches were built, but only three survived in Rome including the Arch of Titus which famously commemorated the destruction of Jerusalem complete with carved images of sacking the Temple and carrying off the sacred Menorah. The largest of the survivors was the Arch of Constantine erected in 315 A.D..
Napoléon, having campaigned successfully in Italy twice and allowing himself to be declared first the President of the Republic of Italy in 1802 and King of Italy in 1805, knew about the triumphal arches in Rome, although he had not visited the city. Like many educated Europeans of the era he was heavily influenced by neo-classical design inspired by the Romans. Specifically he instructed his new arch in Paris be modeled on the Arch of Titus, but on a much grander scale.
The Emperor picked a location on the Right Bank of the Seine within the old walls of the city at the head of the Champs-Élysées, one of the very few wide public boulevards that cut through the old city, notorious for the narrowest and most meandering streets in Europe. Medieval slums had to be cleared to create the Place de l’Étoile, the public plaza on which the monument would sit. Then it took two years just to lay a foundation.
|The wood and canvas mock-up of the Arc for Napoleon's entry into Paris in 1810.|
When Napoléon wanted to triumphantly enter the city in 1810 after a string of victories and to celebrate his dynastically important marriage to Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, the arch itself was barely started and a wooden model had to be erected.
The original architect, Jean Chalgrin, died in 1811 and the work was taken over by Jean-Nicolas Huyot. He envisioned a classic free standing monumental arch 164 feet high, 148 ft. wide, and 72 ft. deep with a central vault 61 ft. high and 27 ft. wide. It was to be richly ornamented with bas relief and four monumental main sculptural groups on each of the Arc’s pillars. These were commissioned from famed sculptors as the Arc was being raised and represented four historically important developments starting the with Revolution of 1792 and ending with the Peace of 1815. The sculptures are:
Le Départ de 1792 (or La Marseillaise), by François Rude celebrating the creation the First Republic. Above the citizens is the winged Liberty.
Le Triomphe de 1810, by Jean-Pierre Cortot celebrates the Treaty of Schönbrunn and features Napoléon, crowned by the Goddess of Victory.
La Résistance de 1814, by Antoine Étex commemorates the resistance to the Allied armies during the War of the Sixth Coalition.
La Paix de 1815, also by Étex commemorates the Treaty of Paris.
Six reliefs on the façade include:
Les funérailles du général Marceau (General Marceau’s burial), by P. H. Lamaire (South façade, right)
La bataille d’Aboukir (The Battle of Aboukir), by Bernard Seurre (South façade, left)
La bataille de Jemappes (The Battle of Jemappes), by Carlo Marochetti (East façade)
Le passage du pont d’Arcole (The Battle of Arcole), by J. J. Feuchère (North façade, right).
La prise d’Alexandrie, (The Fall of Alexandria), by J. E. Chaponnière (North façade, left)
La bataille d’Austerlitz (The Battle of Austerlitz), by J. F. T. Gechter (West façade)
In addition several great battles of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars were engraved on the attic, scores of other French victories were carved under the great arches on the inside façades, and on the inner façades of the small side arches are the names of the military leaders of the French Revolution and Empire. All of this stopped with Napoléon’s first exile. None of the battles after his return from Elba were mentioned.
Small wonder that Louis VXIII stopped work on the Arc. Perhaps the greater wonder was that he did not order the incomplete monument razed. Perhaps he feared the wrath of the Paris mob which still celebrated the Revolution, admired Napoléon, and was deeply resentful of the Bourbon restoration.
|The Bourbon Louis Philippe I, King of the French, completed Napoléon's Arch to promote national unity, French glory, and to appeal to the Paris mob. It worked--for a while.|
As for Louis-Philippe, he reaped the benefits of popularity for completing the Arc and attempting to restore French glory. He was ready to go even further. He had been cultivating good relations with Britain, which had staunchly backed Charles X and the senior Bourbon line and which distrusted Louis-Philippe’s moderate and then popular rule. The King of the French needed the British to counteract the rising power of Prussia and the German States as well as the new Austro-Hungarian Empire created by the Hapsburgs, both traditional enemies of the French. The reconciliation with the British persuaded them to allow the repatriation of Napoléon’s remains from St. Helena in 1840. On December 15 of that year a state funeral was held beginning with a procession from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Élysées, across the Place de la Concorde to the Esplanade des Invalides and then to the cupola in St Jérôme's Chapel. The body remained there until the tomb designed by Louis Visconti was completed in 1861and his remains were placed in a sarcophagus in the crypt under the dome at Les Invalides.
Louis-Philippe, no longer popular, was overthrown in the wave of revolutions that swept Europe in 1848 and was replaced by Louis Napoléon, the old Emperor’s nephew who was at first elected President of the new Republic and who after a suitable interval was proclaimed Emperor Napoléon III of the Second Empire. The new boss had grand plans for the modernization of Paris and the Arc de Triomphe and sat at the heart of them. He appointed Georges-Eugène Haussmann as Prefect of the Seine in 1853 tasked with modernizing the Paris city center, including the construction of broad boulevards to bring “air and light” into the rabbit warren of ancient twisting streets. Conveniently, those boulevards would also be too broad to barricade in case of insurrection and provide clear firing range for artillery.
Five of those boulevards would join the already existing and broadened Champs-Élysées to radiate from the Place de l’Étoile. That placed the Arc as the center piece 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 through the Arc and up the Avenue de la Grande Armée.
|The Prussian Victory Parade of 1871,|
Napoléon III’s reign and dreams of new French glory came to a bitter end at Sedan in 1870 when the extremely ill Emperor was trapped with his army by the Prussians and their allies and forced into a humiliating surrender. At the conclusion of the Franco-Prussian War the peace terms dictated by Otto von Bismarck to the enfeebled new Republican government included a victory parade through the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées for Prussian troops despite the fact that they had never taken the city during the war. It was national humiliation on a grand scale.
In the tumultuous aftermath of the war, the Paris Commune arose only to be ultimately crushed by the National Guard resulting in a blood bath for the working people of Paris and a period of brutal repression.
But as the conservative leaders of the Third Republic desperately needed to revive patriotic unity to a nation shattered by the war and the defeat of the Commune. Eventually, reluctantly and fearfully because of its association with Revolution in the streets, the government embraced Bastille Day as the national patriotic holiday. But they were careful to downplay its revolutionary implications, instead making a grand military parade to restore the glory of the Army and the respect of the people the centerpiece of the annual celebration in Paris. Naturally those grand parades, which were interrupted by World War II and resumed thereafter, used the Arc de Triomphe as its background.
In 1882 the Republic had a monumental sculpture by Alexandre Falguière top the Arc. In what was probably an act of defiance and a direct reference to chariot sculpture atop the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Le triomphe de la Révolution (the Triumph of the Revolution), it depicted a chariot drawn by horses preparing “to crush Anarchy and Despotism”. It was a slap at the Communards on one hand and the Prussians and the newly unified German Empire on the other. Perhaps symbolically, statue which was cast concrete and built of inferior materials deteriorated rapidly and had to be removed after only four years.
By the late 1880’s France had recovered from the long depression that followed the Franco-Prussian War. It was once again the undisputed cultural capital of Europe, and its scientific and engineering accomplishments were second to none in the world. It was La Belle Époque and the French celebrated with the Exposition Universelle of 1889 and its dramatic symbol, the Eifel Tower. While the new tower dominated—and continues to dominate—the Paris sky line, it did not displace the Arc in the hearts of Parisians.
|Flying through the Arc to celebrate victory in World War I.|
At the close of World War I, which bled the French of nearly a whole generation of young men, the Arc took on renewed significance. The French held their own grand victory parade under it in 1919. On August 7, 1919, three weeks after the victory parade Warrant Officer Charles Godefroy famously and without authorization flew his Nieuport bi-plane through the arch. Then on Armistice Day 1920 the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with its eternal flame was dedicated under the Arc making it for the first time almost holy ground.
Subsequently all military parades have gone around, not through, the Arc so as not to trample on the Unknown. Even Hitler when he came to Paris in 1940 to stage his own victory parade in front of the once again humbled French, followed that custom.
In 1944, however with the Allies closing in on the city, Der Führer frantically ordered Paris to be burned and especially that the Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and other symbols of French culture and pride be destroyed. The German officers charged with the task however, who had spent most of the war in Paris and come to love the city and refused to carry out the orders. After an insurrection by French Resistance fighters in the city began on August 20, elements of elements of General Leclerc’s Free French 2nd Armored Division with American-built Sherman Tanks, half-tracks, and half-ton trucks entered parts of the city on August 24. The next day German troops in the city formally surrendered and Charles de Gaulle, President of the Provisional Government of the French Republic arrived on the scene to issue a stirring radio address. On July 25 Leclerc’s division led by de Gaulle in uniform and on foot, staged a formal entrance and victory parade around the Arc and down the Champs-Élysées. Four days later the American 28th Infantry Division, who had assembled in the Bois de Boulogne the previous night, paraded 24-abreast down the Avenue Hoche to the Arc de Triomphe, then down the Champs Élysées surrounded by huge, adoring crowds.
|Charles de Gaulle's 1944 victory walk.|
In 1958 de Gaulle returned to power as the President of the new French Fifth Republic during the Algerian Crisis. After painfully extracting France from its former North African Department and enduring a terrorist bombing camping by settlers who felt betrayed, de Gaulle pursued his aims of restoring French Grandeur and preeminence in Europe, striking an independent note in defiance to both the “Anglo-Saxon” alliance of the United States and Britain on one hand and the Soviet Block on the other. He beefed up French defense forces and made France the fourth member of the nuclear club. He retained membership in NATO but withdrew French forces from its common command. A super nationalist he made regular use of the Arc de Triomphe as a symbolic backdrop. The Place de l’Étoile was renamed the Place Charles de Gaulle.
In 1965 and ’66 decades of soot and grime were removed from the Arc in a deep cleaning and the surface was bleached giving it the gleaming white appearance that it has been able to maintain since coal has been curtailed as a fuel for industry, housing, and rail.
In lengthening of the Champs-Élysées, a new modern arch, the Grande Arche de la Défense, was built in 1982, completing the line of monuments that forms Paris’s Axe historique.
The Arc de Triomphe long held its place as the largest victory arch in the world but was surpassed by Mexico City’s Monumento a la Revolución in 1939 and Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, North Korea completed in 1982.
|Modern French power is still on defiant display annually at Bastile Day Parade, the oldest and one of the largest annual military parades in the world.|
Millions of visitors see, and are photographed around the Arc de Triomphe every year. It was possible to go inside and visit the small museum in the attic accessible by elevator, but that has been suspended due to the Corona Virus pandemic. American tourists are banned from the county due to our Third World response to the deadly emergency. Perhaps the French can now regard the Arc de Triomphe as a symbol of a victory over Covid-19.