10 Fast Facts About the Arc de Triomphe
On July 29, 1836—30 years after it was first commissioned by Napoleon—Paris celebrated the inauguration of the Arc de Triomphe. Here are just a few of the stories that are hidden within the historic piece of architecture's walls.
1. BEFORE IT WAS THE ARC DE TRIOMPHE, THE SPACE WAS ALMOST DEDICATED TO A GIANT ELEPHANT.
Pre-Napoleon, French architect Charles Ribart proposed a three-level, elephant-shaped building that would be entered via a spiral staircase that led up into the elephant's gut. The furniture would fold into the walls and there would be a drainage system in the elephant's trunk. Ribart was all set to start building, but the French government ended up denying his request to erect the giant pachyderm. Go figure.
2. THE ARC WAS COMMISSIONED BY NAPOLEON IN 1806, NOT TOO LONG AFTER HIS VICTORY IN AUSTERLITZ.
It took 30 years to finish the Arc de Triomphe, and no wonder: it's incredibly elaborate. Relief sculptures at the base of each of the four pillars show four victories and war scenes; the top of the arch has the names of major successes during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. Less important victories can be found on the inside walls, plus the names of 558 generals. The underlined names are to show that the general died in battle.
3. NAPOLEON NEVER GOT TO SEE THE FINISHED PRODUCT.
The Arc de Triomphe wasn't completed until 1836, 15 years after Napoleon's death, so he never had the chance to see the final product. When he married second wife Marie Louise of Austria, he had a wooden replica of the Arc made so the two of them could pass through it as they entered Paris as a married couple. (No word on whether she was impressed or not.)
When Napoleon abdicated in 1814, construction on the Arc de Triomphe stopped for a few years. It resumed in 1826. Although he had already been dead nearly 20 years, Napoleon finally got to pass through the completed Arc in 1840—when his body was moved to its final resting place.
4. IT'S THE WORLD'S SECOND LARGEST TRIUMPHAL ARCH.
At 164 feet high by 148 feet wide, it's the second-largest triumphal arch standing today, and was the largest until 1982, when North Korea unveiled its Arch of Triumph. (If you're wondering, "How many triumphal arches can there be?" the answer is: quite a few.)
5. CHARLES GODEFROY FLEW HIS PLANE THROUGH THE ARCH.
A few weeks after the end of WWI, Charles Godefroy flew his Nieuport fighter plane through the Arch to salute all the airmen killed in the war. It was caught on tape, which means, of course, it's now on YouTube (see above).
6. AN UNKNOWN SOLDIER WAS LAID TO REST UNDER IT.
As many countries do, France has a Tomb of the Unknown Solider, and this tomb happens to be under the Arc de Triomphe. The Unknown Soldier has been there since November 10, 1920, and lies under the inscription, "Here lies a French soldier who died for his fatherland 1914-1918." At that time, an eternal flame was lit to honor those who had fallen during the war. John and Jackie Kennedy visited the Tomb in 1961 and it inspired Jackie to have an eternal flame for her husband when he was assassinated in 1963.
7. THERE WAS A LITTLE PROBLEM WITH THE MARSEILLAISE RELIEF IN 1916.
It's said that on the day the Battle of Verdun—a major battle between France and Germany in WWI—broke out on February 21, 1916, the sword carried by the warrior who represents France on the Arc just snapped clean off. It was immediately covered up with tarps so citizens wouldn't interpret France's broken sword as a bad omen, but maybe it was: Nine French villages were completely destroyed during the fighting, more than a quarter of a million people died, and at least half a million were wounded.
8. IT HAS BEEN THE SITE OF AT LEAST TWO ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTS.
Charles De Gaulle narrowly escaped a would-be killer at the Arc de Triomphe during his terms (he survived more than 30 assassination attempts, so he was probably unfazed). And in 2002, a single shot missed Jacques Chirac at the same location. Chirac was reviewing troops in an open-top Jeep for Bastille Day when a gunman took a hunting rifle out of a guitar case and got a shot off before police took him down.
9. IT HAS SEEN ITS FAIR SHARE OF DEFEATS, TOO.
Although the Arc is meant to celebrate France's victories, it has seen a couple of horrible defeats as well: Germans marched under the arch in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War and Nazis did the same during the German occupation of Paris in WWII.
10. CLEANING IT ISN'T EASY.
Giving the landmark a full-scale cleaning is no easy task. When it last received a full-scale cleaning was in 2011; it was its first in almost 50 years.