Built between 1806 and 1836, commissioned by Napoleon, Arc de Triomphe honours those who fought for France. The arch is an important element of L’Axe historique – a line of grand monuments, buildings and thoroughfares that extends from the centre of Paris to the west. It is also known as the Voie Triomphale (triumphal way).
Commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate his victory at Austerlitz in 1806, Arc de Triomphe was under construction for many years, but was finally completed in 1836. Since then, it has seen many troops parading to honour significant victories. Nowadays marches do not cross under the arch itself in deference to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Arc de Triomphe was commissioned in 1806 after the victory at Austerlitz by Emperor Napoleon at the peak of his fortunes. Laying the foundations alone took two years and, in 1810, when Napoleon entered Paris from the west with his bride Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria, he had a wooden mock-up of the completed arch constructed. The architect, Jean Chalgrin, died in 1811 and the work was taken over by Jean-Nicolas Huyot. During the Bourbon Restoration, construction was halted and it would not be completed until the reign of King Louis-Philippe, between 1833 and 1836, by the architects Goust, then Huyot, under the direction of Héricart de Thury. On 15 December 1840, brought back to France from Saint Helena, Napoleon’s remains passed under it on their way to the Emperor’s final resting place at the Invalides.
Following its construction, the Arc de Triomphe became the rallying point of French troops parading after successful military campaigns and for the annual Bastille Day Military Parade. Famous victory marches around or under the Arc have included the Germans in 1871, the French in 1919, the Germans in 1940, and the French and Allies in 1944 and 1945. After the interment of the Unknown Soldier, however, all military parades have avoided marching through the actual arch. The route taken is up to the arch and then around its side, out of respect for the tomb and its symbolism. Both Hitler and de Gaulle observed this custom.
By the early 1960s, the monument had grown very blackened from coal soot and automobile exhaust, and it was cleaned through bleaching. In the prolongation of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, a new arch, the Grande Arche de la Défense, was built, completing the line of monuments that forms Paris’s Axe historique. After the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, the Grande Arche is the third arch built on the same perspective.
The structure was designed by Jean Chalgrin in the Neoclassical style. The main sculptures are considered independent trophies applied to the vast ashlar masonry masses. The four sculptural groups at the base of the Arc are: The Triumph of 1810, Resistance, Peace, and Departure of the Volunteers of 1792, commonly called La Marseillaise.
In the attic above the richly sculptured frieze of soldiers are thirty shields engraved with the names of major Revolutionary and Napoleonic military victories. The inside walls of the monument list the names of 660 people, among which are 558 French generals of the First French Empire. The names of those who died in battle are underlined.
Beneath the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. The remains of an unnamed fallen soldier were laid to rest there on Armistice Day 1920. The Tomb now represents the memory of all unknown soldiers felled in both world wars. An eternal flame burns there. A ceremony to commemorate them is held at the Tomb every year on November 11.