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Arc de Triomphe – Paris, France

Among the other world-renown public works in Paris, the Arc de Triomphe stands as a masterpiece in urban master planning unlike anything you’ll ever see in America (aside from Washington DC).  It is, by no small margin, the largest triumphal arch based on the ancient Roman triumphal arch that was used to celebrate the return of a victorious army.


The arc was commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon Bonaparte following his massive victory at Austerlitz where he handed a heavy defeat to a joint Russo-Austrian contingent (which would lead to the end of the Holy Roman Empire).  The arc was never finished during his reign after his decline and eventual defeat in the following decade.  King Louis-Philippe would later finish it between 1833-36.  Since the arc was not finished by Napoleon, its significance was shifted from a celebration of Napoleon’s power to a monument to France’s Armed Forces.  The Arc de Triomphe would play a role in housing the Unknown Soldier from World War I, and would later be the scene of the World War II German and subsequent American victories in France.


The original designer was Jean Chalgrin who chose the neoclassical variant of old Roman architecture.  On the faces of the arc are various sculptures made by the best artists of the era: Cortot, Etex, and Rude.  The sculptures all represent different things, and are not considered to work together as a whole.  Instead, they are somewhat ad-hoc additions that celebrate different events from different time periods.  Historians group the sculptures into four main groupings known as: The Triumph by Cortot, the Resistance and Peace by Etex, and La Marseillaise by Rude.  These sculptures can be found on the front and back faces of the arc.  Up top, you can see a beautiful frieze with some 30 shields that each commemorates a major victory in the Napoleonic campaigns.  Inside the walls of the arch are the names of major French Generals (almost 600 in all) who fought in the battles. 

The site of the Arc de Triomphe is a throwback to old ideas on urban planning.  The arc itself sits at the end of the major thoroughfare Champs-Elysees, at the center of Place de l’Etoile where no less than twelve avenues intersect in a starburst leading out of a large roundabout.  The arc also anchors l’Axe historique, which is a linear string of historic places starting from the courtyard of Louvre Palace.

The Arc de Triomphe is a true masterpiece in monumental design and urban planning.  It stands 200 feet in height and is now the endpoint for the Tour de France each year.