All You’ve Ever Wanted to Know about the Arc de Triomphe

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All You’ve Ever Wanted to Know about the Arc de Triomphe
With the city’s recently announcement of an ambitious plan to turn the Champs-Élysées into a garden, we’re shining the spotlight on the avenue’s famous anchor The architecture of the city of Paris can seem overwhelmingly imposing; the arrogance of its monuments, not unlike the arrogance of its former rulers, defy human scale. In architecture, human scale is often deliberately violated for effect. Memorials are constructed on a scale larger than life as a purposeful juxtaposition. It’s this very dichotomy that makes Paris so extraordinary. Nowhere is this more evident than at Place Charles de Gaulle, commonly known as Place de l’Étoile, at the western end of the Avenue des Champs Élysées. Here, the Arc de Triomphe rises majestically from the center of the circular plaza, its 12 avenues spreading outward like the points of a shining star.  Admittedly, the Champs-Élysées is one of the loveliest avenues in the world, but it was once a murky swamp used by butchers and tanners for their waste. In 1684, André Le Nôtre, gardener to King Louis XIV, designed and completely transformed the Tuileries gardens, originally created by Catherine de Medici in 1563. With a strict axial alignment, perpendicular to the Tuileries Palace (adjacent to the Louvre and destroyed by fire in the 1871 during the Paris Commune), he created a grand allée lined with a double row of elm trees on each side, called the Grand Cours. His design carried the symmetrical line of this allée beyond the gardens and out into the countryside by tracing a path through an open field, straight to the wooded summit of the Montagne du Roule (one of Paris’ 12 hills) on the edge of the city of Paris. Instinctively, Le Nôtre knew that urban gardens, parks and woodlands provide myriad benefits to people. More importantly, they create social cohesion and strengthen a sense of identity, something that was sorely lacking during his King’s reign, but keenly recognized by Napoléon I (1769-1821) when he seized power in a 1799 coup d’état, effectively ending the French Revolution.  Sunset on the Arc de Triomphe. Photo credit © Siren, Wikimedia Commons (CC by 3.0) In 1804 Napoléon claimed himself Emperor of France. After the Battle of Austerlitz (1805), one of his greatest victories, he commissioned the triumphal arch we know today. He is known to have said to his soldiers, “When you come back home, it will be through this triumphal arch.” The present day Place de l’Étoile was formally chosen by the architect, Jean-François-Thérèse Chalgrin (1739–1811). Chalgrin’s neoclassical style was inspired in part by the Arch of Titus in the Roman Forum. The Arc de Triomphe is the largest triumphal arch in the world. In its simplest form, the Arc consists of four semicircular arches supported by massive masonry pillars, in turn supported by pedestals, and surmounted by an entablature and a vaulted attic. The columns, which in most other structures have a purely decorative role, here have a supporting role. Napoléon soon lost interest in the project, and construction slowed to a virtual halt over the next few years. Little more than the foundation had been completed by the time of his second marriage, to the Austrian archduchess, Marie-Louise, in 1810.  Honoring her ceremonial entry into Paris, a full-scale, trompe l’oeil depiction of the design was created by the artist, Louis Lafitte, on wood-framed painted canvases, and erected at the site. It enabled Chalgrin to make changes to his plans by adding, removing, and choosing different architectural ornamentation. Chalgrin died one year later. By then the pillars of the Arc had reached the height of 53 feet. Succeeding him as head of the project was his pupil, Louis-Robert Goust. 

Lead photo credit : Photo credit © jianwei0727, Pexels

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Sue Aran lives in the Gers department of southwest France. She is the owner of French Country Adventures, which provides private, personally-guided, small-group food & wine adventures into Gascony, the Pays Basque and Provence. She writes a monthly blog about her life in France and is a contributor to Bonjour Paris and France Today magazines.


  • Helen Anderson
    2021-02-22 07:36:28
    Helen Anderson
    Thank you for this lovely historic perspective of the Arc de Triomphe. Do you have articles on your food and wine tours?


    • Sue Aran
      2021-02-23 04:37:43
      Sue Aran
      Hello Helen, I'm pleased you liked the article. I will write to you about the tours. Kind regards, Sue