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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte Alcock

A Brief History of the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile

What is the Arc de Triomphe?

The Arc de Triomphe (Full name Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile) is an iconic 19th-century monument built by Napoleon, and dedicated to those who died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe History

As one of the most famous and largest arches in the world, the Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile (as it’s more formally known) is renowned as a symbol of French national identity the world over. It sits in the heart of the Place Charles de Gaulle, formerly known as the Place de l'Étoile, (or ‘Square of the Star’), an area named after the shape formed by the twelve avenues that extend out from it in all directions.

The arch dates back to 1806, when it was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte, with the first stone of the arch laid on the Emperor’s birthday. Taking inspiration from the Arch of Titus in Rome, Napoleon erected the Arc de Triomphe in honour of the Imperial armies following their conquest of Europe. He demanded its construction in order that his soldiers could ‘return home through arches of triumph’.

The arch, however, ended up taking a total of 30 years to be constructed, following a pause in 1814 with the abdication of Napoleon, and not resuming until a decade later. It was designed by one of the country’s most famous architects of the time, Jean Chalgrin, though sadly he passed away in 1811 whilst the arch was still incomplete and so never got to witness the finished monument. When Louis XVIII dedicated it to his armies after their successes in Spain, work on the arch was continued, this time by Jean-Nicolas Huyot, another highly regarded architect of the time.

Arc de Triomphe sculpture

The arch itself is adorned with a series of colossal high-relief sculptures carried out by some of the finest artists of the day. Facing the Champs-Élysées, you’ll find the Triumph of Napoleon in 1810 by Jean-Pierre Cortot and to its right, the impressive Departure of the Army in 1792 by François Rude. (Its soldiers are the volunteers from Marseille who give the French national anthem - and Rude’s sculpture - the familiar name La Marseillaise.) Whilst on the opposite side, Antoine Étex created the Resistance of the French in 1814 and the Peace of 1815. Alongside these magnificent sculptures, the arch also pays homage to the soldiers who fought and died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, with the names of 128 battles and 558 generals inscribed on its interior walls (with the names of those killed in action underlined).

Beneath the arch is the famous ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’. This was laid to rest in 1920 in memory of the further 1.5 million French soldiers who died during the First World War. Shortly after, it was confirmed that an eternal flame of remembrance should sit next to the tomb. This was lit for the first time on 11th November 1923, and has since been re-lit every evening at 6.30pm.

Arc de Triomphe interior

In total, there are 284 steps up from the ground level to the top of the arch, where you can admire some of the best views in all of Paris.

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