Arc de Triomphe
Champs Elysees


Paris  in France

Commissioned by Napoleon, the Arc de Triomphe took 30 years to complete, long after the emperor’s defeat


PARIS is dotted with world famous monuments, the Eiffel Tower looming over them all. But before that metal spire rose high above Paris one of the city’s most impressive and imposing landmarks was the Arc de Triomphe. Sitting at the centre of 12 radiating avenues, including the Champs-Elysees, it was once the largest triumphal arch in the world, until the Mexicans erected their Monumento a la Revolucion in 1938.

The arch, which features prominently every year in Bastille Day celebrations and the Tour de France, was inaugurated 180 years ago tomorrow. Commissioned by Napoleon and designed by Jean Chalgrin it took so long to build that neither man lived to see it finished.

In 1806 French emperor Napoleon, flushed with the success of his great triumph against Russian and Austrian forces at the battle of Austerlitz in 1805, decided to create a monument to the victories of his Grande Armee.

He had promised his troops that they would “return home through arches of triumph” so he envisaged building an ancient Roman arch, through which he could ride at the head of his victorious troops. Napoleon saw himself as a great unifier of Europe like the Roman emperors centuries before and his monuments, buildings and propaganda often borrowed ancient Roman motifs.

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He hired architect Jean Chalgrin to make this vision a reality. Born in 1739, Chalgrin had trained in Rome and was a great champion of the Neoclassical style. He survived the Revolution despite having worked for the Count de Provence, the brother of Louis XVI. From 1799 to 1805 he transformed the Luxembourg Palace from royal residence to public building.

Chalgrin’s design for the arch took inspiration from Rome’s Arch of Titus, but was much larger, rising 50m rather than a mere 15m and did away with Roman-style columns. Construction began on Napoleon’s 37th birthday on August 15, 1806, but Chalgrin had underestimated the difficulties involved with such a huge arch. The foundations alone took two years. As it slowly made its way skyward Napoleon grew impatient. In 1810, when he married his second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, he ordered Chalgrin to build a full-size wood and canvas facsimile of the arch to be erected over the construction site so that he could ride through it with his new bride. The mock-up of the arch allowed Chalgrin to make adjustments to the design

When Chalgrin died in 1811 the arch was still not finished and architect Louis-Robert Goust, a former student of Chalgrin, took over.

Construction halted when Napoleon abdicated in 1814. When the monarchy was restored under Count de Provence, who took the title Louis XVIII, there was initially little interest in completing Napoleon’s monument and there were even calls to demolish what had been built. But with his own military victory notched up against revolutionaries trying to topple the Spanish monarchy in 1823, Louis hired Jean-Nicolas Huyot, another former student of Chalgrin, to complete the structure. Huyot was sacked by Louis’ successor Charles X for tinkering with Chalgrin’s plans.

When Charles X was ousted by a revolution in 1830 he was replaced by King Louis-Philippe who came to see the completion of the arch as a priority, primarily to stop a slide in his popularity by evoking the increasingly popular late deposed emperor Napoleon. Huyot had wormed his way back to the post of architect but was ditched again in 1832, replaced by Guillaume-Abel Blouet who would steer the project to its completion in 1836. Louis-Philippe held a ceremony to inaugurate and open the arch on July 29, 1836, the sixth anniversary of the overthrow of Charles X. Under a heavy armed guard Louis-Philippe hoped to bask in renewed public adoration but veterans of Napoleon’s army in the audience started a cheer of “vive l’emperor” (long live the emperor). The king made another attempt to use the arch for his own popularity by allowing the remains of Napoleon to be brought from St Helena, where he had died in exile in 1821, to pass through the arch in a final triumphal parade in 1840.

The body of French author Victor Hugo lay in state under the arch in 1885. The body of a World War I soldier was placed in a Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the arch in 1921. The Germans rode through the arch after France’s capitulation in 1940 and Charles de Gaulle led the Free French troops through the arch when France was liberated in 1944.