Top 15 Interesting Facts About The Arc de Triomphe
Originally published by Natalie on October 2021 and updated by Charity K on August 2022
The Arc is the monumental sized archway where 12 main roads meet in the city center, one of them being the Champs Elysee. Technically, the Arc de Triomphe is the biggest plaza or public square in the city, though there isn’t really a communal area where civilians can hang out.
Here are ten things you probably didn’t know about this important attraction.
1. The Arc de Triomphe was Commissioned by Napoleon
The contraction of the Arc was commissioned by Napoleon on August 15th in 1806.
It was his intent to honor the great French army in some way; a force that he deemed invincible considering they had conquered most of Europe.
It’s interesting to note that the day its commission was ordered was also Napoleon’s birthday. A secret gift to himself, perhaps?
2. The Space Was Almost Given Up to a Giant Elephant
Prior to talk of the Arc de Triomphe, French architect Charles Ribart had drawn up grand plans to construct a three-tiered elephant in the plaza where the Arc stands today.
The elephant would be gigantic and hollow, with staircases leading from the ground up into its gut where there would be elaborate furniture for people to laze around on.
Building was just about ready to commence when the French government suddenly changed their minds and denied the petition. Probably for the best, in retrospect.
3. The Four Pillars Showcase Four Separate Sculptor Groups
If you go and observe the Arc up close, you’ll notice that each of the four pillars showcase individual sculptural works.
The first is dedicated to Le Départ de 1792 and was designed by by François Rude. This sculptor honors the French First Republic during the uprising that took place on the 10th of August.
The second is Le Triomphe de 1810 and was designed by Jean-Pierre Cortot. This commemorates the Treaty of Schönbrunn and features Napoleon being crowned in victory.
The third pillar showcases the Résistance de 1814 and was designed by Antoine Étex. It commemorates French resistance during the War of the Sixth Coalition.
Lastly, the fourth pillar represents the Paix de 1815, also designed by Antoine Étex. This one is commemoration of the Treaty of Paris.
4. Many Artists Have Contribute to its Creation
Because of the grand scale of the monument, many artists had to be brought in over the years to bring the structure into completion.
The initial architect, Jean Chalgrin, passed away in 1811 when the work was still incomplete. Jean-Nicolas Huyot was brought in to take over, and he then commissioned the artists we read about in the design of the four pillars: Jean-Pierre Cortot, François Rude, Antoine Étex and James Pradier.
5. A Wooden Replica of the Arc de Triomphe Was Made for Napoleon
Napoleon was not in power when the Arc de Triomphe saw completion. But in 1810 when he was getting married to his wife Marie-Louise, Napoleon had a smaller wooden replica of the Arc constructed, under which he and his wife tied the knot.
6. He Never Even Got to See the Finished Product
Napoleon was abdicated in 1814, and construction on the Arc was brought to a halt. It was more than a decade later, in 1826, when it resumed.
Unfortunately Napoleon passed away in 1821, so he never got to see the final product of his beloved project.
As an ode to him, the city of Paris did pass his body through the arch in 1840 when it was being moved to its final resting place at Invalides.
7. It is the Second Largest Triumphal Arch in the World
Believe it or not, there are many arches dedicated to triumph around the world.
The Arc de Triomphe was the largest on planet Earth all the way through until 1982, when North Korea unveiled their own triumphant arch that was considerably bigger than Paris’.
8. Two Assassination Attempts Have Taken Place at the Arc de Triomphe
Monsieur Charles De Gaulle, after whom the Paris airport is named, narrowly missed an assassination attempt on his life at the Arc de Triomphe. He famously survived over thirty of these attempts on his life during his time in the French capital.
Not long ago, in 2002, Jacques Chirac also narrowly beat an attempt to take his life at the same location. He was addressing troops during Bastille Day celebrations from an open top Jeep when a bullet was sent his way.
9. A Plane Was Once Flown Through It
A few weeks after WW1 drew to a close, Charles Godefroy flew his fighter plane right under the archway in commemoration of all the pilots that lost their lives during the battles.
Footage of this incredible feat is widely available online today, as it was caught on tape.
10. The Flame Has Been Burning for Almost 100 Years
The most important attraction at the Arc de Triomphe is the eternal flame, which was lit on 11th November 1923 and has not been extinguished since.
Every evening at 6:30pm, wreaths are laid into the flames by veterans to keep it eternally burning.
Both the Arc de Triomphe and the neighborhood surrounding it are fascinating points of history in Paris. I recommend any of the free guided walking tours through these central streets that will either start or finish at the iconic monument. An unmissable experience for anyone wanting to experience Paris at its most historic.
11. The Design was an ancient Roman Architecture
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.
The four sculptural groups at the base of the Arc are The Triumph of 1810 (Cortot), Resistance and Peace (both by Antoine Étex), and the most renowned of them all, Departure of the Volunteers of 1792 commonly called La Marseillaise (François Rude).
12. It had a representation of France Calling her People
The face of the allegorical representation of France calling forth her people on this last was used as the belt buckle for the honorary rank of Marshal of France. Since the fall of Napoleon (1815), the sculpture representing Peace is interpreted as commemorating the Peace of 1815.
13. Names of those honored included in the Arc
The names of those generals killed in battle are underlined. Also inscribed, on the shorter sides of the four supporting columns, are the names of the major French victories in the Napoleonic Wars. The battles that took place in the period between the departure of Napoleon from Elba to his final defeat at Waterloo are not included.
For four years from 1882 to 1886, a monumental sculpture by Alexandre Falguière topped the arch. Titled “The Triumph of the Revolution”. It depicted a chariot drawn by horses preparing to crush Anarchy and Despotism. It remained there only four years before falling into ruins.
Inside the monument, a permanent exhibition, conceived by artist Maurice Benayoun and architect Christophe Girault, opened in February 2007.
The steel and new media installation interrogate the symbolism of the national monument, questioning the balance of its symbolic message during the last two centuries, oscillating between war and peace.
Therefore, the Arc de Triomphe honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces.
14. The main access to the Arc de Triomphe
To access the Arc de Triomphe, one has to go through the RER and Métro. The exit, however, is at the Charles de Gaulle–Étoile station.
Due to the heavy traffic on the roundabout of which the Arc is the center, 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 that contains large models of the Arc and tells its story from the time of its construction.
Another 40 steps remain to climb in order to reach the top, the terrasse, from where one can enjoy a panoramic view of Paris.
The location of the arc, as well as the Place de l’Étoile, is shared between three arrondissements, the 16th to the south and west, the 17th to the north while the 8th is at the east.
15. A view of the town from the top of the Arc de Triomphe is amazing
For the tourists or anyone visiting Arc de Triomphe, it is worth the climb to the top just for the view down the tree-lined Champs-Elysées toward Place de la Concorde and the Louvre Museum. There’s no better way to appreciate just how grand and impressive the town is than from the top of Arc de Triomphe.