Opening of the Arc de Triomphe
On July 29, 1836, the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile (Triumphal Arch of the Star) officially opened to the public.
Before the plans were made for the Arc de Triomphe, there was a proposal for a different structure in that location. Architect Charles Ribart wanted to build a three-level elephant-shaped building with a spiral staircase and furniture that folded into the walls. However, the French government denied his request.
Instead, the arc was commissioned in 1806 to celebrate Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1805 victory over Russia and Austria at Austerlitz, which was considered his greatest battle. Construction began on his birthday, August 15, 1806, after which it took two years to lay the foundation. Then in 1810, Napoleon had a full-size wooden arc built so he and his new bride could ride through it as they entered Paris.
The original architect, Jean Chalgrin, died in 1811 and the project was taken over by Jean-Nicolas Huyot. However, following the fall of Napoleon in 1814, work on the arc was stopped for several years. Construction didn’t resume again until 1823 when King Louis XVIII was inspired by the success of the French invasion of Spain. The project continued on and the main structure was completed in 1831. The arc’s many details would be completed in 1836. King Louis-Philippe oversaw the official opening of the arc on July 29, 1836.
The finished arc measured 164 feet high and 148 feet wide. At the time of its completion, it was the largest triumphal arch in the world (though North Korea would take that title in 1982). The arc’s design is Neoclassical and was partially inspired by the Arch of Titus in Rome. It features high-relief sculptures of French military victories. The arc also lists the names of all French victories and notable generals.
Though Napoleon never lived to see the arc’s completion, his body was passed through it in 1840 when it was moved from Saint Helena to his final resting place at the Invalides. Several other notable French personalities have also passed through the arc or laid in state there.
According to legend, a sword from one of the reliefs broke off on the day the Battle of Verdun began in 1916. The relief was then covered with a tarp so people wouldn’t see it was broken and think it was an ominous sign. After the war, Charles Godefroy flew a plane through the arch to honor all the airmen that died in World War I.
On Armistice Day in 1920, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was placed beneath the arch, as well as the first eternal flame lit in Western and Eastern Europe since the fourth century. John and Jackie Kennedy visited the eternal flame in 1961. After John’s death, Jackie remembered the eternal flame and requested one be placed next to her husband’s grave.
The arc has served as a rallying point for French troops since its completion. It was the site of several famous victory marches, including one by the Germans in 1871, the French in 1919, the Germans again in 1940, and the French and their allies in 1944 and 1945.
Click here to view close-up photos of the arc’s statues and other details.
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