The Quick 10: The Arc de Triomphe

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It was this week in 1836 that Paris celebrated the inauguration of the Arc de Triomphe, 30 years after the triumphal arch was first commissioned by Napoleon. Such an old and historical piece of architecture definitely has a few stories within its walls "“ here are just a few of them.

elephant1. Before it was the Arc de Triomphe, the space there was almost dedicated to a giant elephant. Really. Pre-Napolean, 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 as we know it today was commissioned by Napoleon in 1806, not too long after his victory as Austerlitz. It took 30 years to finish, 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. Sadly, Napoleon never got to see the finished product. It wasn't completed until 1836, 15 years after his death. 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. 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 deliberately built one a little bit larger. "Honestly, how many triumphal arches can there be?" you might be wondering... at least, I was. Sometimes I assume you guys wonder the same things I do, which may be presumptuous of me. Anyway, to answer the question, there are quite a few.

5. 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. It's short, but here it is for your viewing pleasure:

6. 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.

marseillaise7. There was a little problem with the Marseillaise relief in 1916. It's said that on the day the Battle of Verdun broke out "“ a major battle between France and Germany in WWI - the sword carried by the warrior who represents France 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. At least two assassination attempts have taken place at the Arc de Triomphe: Charles De Gaulle narrowly escaped a would-be killer there 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.

nazis9. 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 WWIII.
10. The last time the Arc de Triomphe had a full-scale cleaning was during the mid-1960s. It was determined in 2007 that the Arc is looking a bit sooty again, so another cleaning is scheduled for 2011.

I know some of you _flossers have been to the Arc. What were your impressions?

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July 28, 2009 - 11:23am
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