Arc de Triomphe

The Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile, (Triumphal Arch of the Star) is one of the most famous monuments in Paris. It stands in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle (originally named Place de l'Étoile), at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. It should not be confused with a smaller arch, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which stands west of the Louvre. The Arc de Triomphe honours those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces. Beneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.

The monument was designed by Jean Chalgrin in 1806 and its iconographic program pits heroically nude French youths against bearded Germanic warriors in chain mail. It set the tone for public monuments with triumphant patriotic messages.

Its design was inspired by the Roman Arch of Titus. The Arc de Triomphe is built on such a large scale that, three weeks after the Paris victory parade in 1919 (marking the end of hostilities in World War I), Charles Godefroy flew his Nieuport biplane through it, with the event captured on newsreel.

The Arc is located on the right bank of the Seine at the centre of a dodecagonal configuration of twelve radiating avenues. It 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. Prior to burial in the Panthéon, the body of Victor Hugo was exposed under the Arc during the night of 22 May 1885.

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 in 1940 and de Gaulle in 1944 observed this custom.

The astylar design is by Jean Chalgrin (1739–1811), in the Neoclassical version of ancient Roman architecture. Major academic sculptors of France are represented in the sculpture of the Arc de Triomphe: Jean-Pierre Cortot; François Rude; Antoine Étex; James Pradier and Philippe Joseph Henri Lemaire. The main sculptures are not integral friezes but are treated as independent trophies applied to the vast ashlar masonry masses, not unlike the gilt-bronze appliqués on Empire furniture.

In the attic above the richly sculptured frieze of soldiers are 30 shields engraved with the names of major French victories in the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars.The inside walls of the monument list the names of 660 people, among which are 558 French generals of the First French Empire.

Inside the monument, a permanent exhibition conceived by the artist Maurice Benayoun and the architect Christophe Girault opened in February 2007. The steel and new media installation interrogates the symbolism of the national monument, questioning the balance of its symbolic message during the last two centuries, oscillating between war and peace.

Beneath the Arc is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. Interred on Armistice Day 1920, it has the first eternal flame lit in Western and Eastern Europe since the Vestal Virgins' fire was extinguished in the fourth century. It burns in memory of the dead who were never identified (now in both world wars).

A ceremony is held at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier every 11 November on the anniversary of the armistice signed by the Entente Powers and Germany in 1918.

The Arc de Triomphe is accessible by the RER and Métro, with exit at the Charles de Gaulle Étoile station. Because of heavy traffic on the roundabout of which the Arc is the centre, it is recommended that pedestrians use one of two underpasses located at the Champs Élysées and the Avenue de la Grande Armée. A lift will take visitors almost to the top to the attic, where there is a small museum which contains large models of the Arc and tells its story from the time of its construction. Another 46 steps remain to climb in order to reach the top, the terrasse, from where one can enjoy a panoramic view of Paris.