Lately, there has been a lot of talk about the Arc de Triomphe, or the lack of it – I don’t know how to put it.
The team of the artists Christo (deceased in 2020) and his spouse Jeanne-Claude (deceased in 2009) wrapped the monument in 25,000 square meters of recyclable polypropylene fabric in silvery blue, and with 3,000 meters of red rope, as an ephemeral art work “L’Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped”, from September 18 to October 3, 2021. If I understand correctly the philosophy of the monumental wrapping concept to which these two artists have been committed for several decades, the idea is to “reveal by hiding” monuments that we no longer really look at and also to offer another point of view of such monuments.
All of this doesn’t speak to my 8-year-old daughter, who asked me insistently – and utterly upset – for two weeks why her favorite monument was wrapped in a garbage bag.
To console her, I explained that the event was absolutely ephemeral (“what does “emepheral” mean, Mum” – you feel the dislexia, right?) and that the Arc de Triomphe had a long story behind it and a long life ahead of it.
A long story behind it, starting in 1667 when André Le Nôtre created a perspective that went from the Tuileries Palace to the Place de l’Etoile, still called at that time “the hill of Chaillot”. This newly opened axis allowed one to take the road leading to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a royal city that was royally disliked by Louis XIV.
In 1758, the idea was born to embellish this perspective plagued with a boring linearity: the project of a monumental statue representing an elephant sixty meters high, with water fountains and dancing halls was proposed by the engineer Jean-Etienne Ribart de Chamoust but was finally rejected by Louis XV.
In 1785, the “hill of Chaillot” was more prosaically decorated with pavilions erected by Ledoux, serving as barriers because entry into the city required the payment of taxes.
The erection of the Arc de Triomphe was decided upon the day after the battle of Austerlitz in 1806 by Napoleon, but was not completed until 1836, during the reign of Louis-Philippe. The Arc de Triomphe, dedicated to French victories, inevitably recalled the triumphal arches of the Roman Empire. The initial project envisaged the construction of the Arc de Triomphe near the Bastille but the Interior Minister Champagny convinced the Emperor to move the project to the “hill of Chaillot” which had good perspectives.
The foundations as such required two years of work and by 1810 the four pillars rose only one meter from the ground.
In 1814, the Arc de Triomphe rose to the vaults, but the construction was abandoned under the Restoration period.
It was resumed in 1823, under Louis XVIII and in 1830, Louis-Philippe took up the initial idea of Napoleon by associating it with the armies which fought between 1792 and 1815. He chose the themes of the sculptures.
Four high sculptures adorn the pillars: “Le Départ des Volontaires”, otherwise called “La Marseillaise”, by François Rude, represents the gathering of the French people defending the Nation by going to war. It’s antique, it’s romantic, it’s beautiful.
“The Triumph of 1810” is the work of Jean-Pierre Cortot.
“The Resistance of 1814” and “The Peace of 1815” are the works of Antoine Etex.
The sculpture at the top of the Arc is divided into two parts: “Le Départ des Armées” and “Le Retour des Armées” and is the work of Guillaume-Abel Blouet.
The names of the great battles of the Revolution and the Empire are engraved on the inner faces of the pillars of the great arches and the names of outstanding personalities of the Revolution and the Empire are engraved on the inner faces of the small arches.
The Arc de Triomphe was inaugurated on July 29, 1836, for the sixth anniversary of the Trois Glorieuses. In the minds of the designers, the top of the Arc de Triomphe was supposed to be crowned by a monumental sculpted group.
In 1882, a quadriga designed by the sculptor Alexandre Falguière was installed and this model in plaster, representing an allegory of France or the Republic, pulled by an antique chariot preparing to “crush the Anarchy and Despotism”, baptized “the Triumph of the Revolution”. It was removed in 1886 because it began to deteriorate. Its final replacement by a bronze will never be done but the model is perfectly visible in the photographs taken during the grandiose funeral of Victor Hugo, in 1885.
Because it must be said, the Arc de Triomphe is, like the Pantheon, a strong symbol of the national spirit.
During the transfer of the ashes of Napoleon on December 15, 1840, the procession paraded under the Arc de Triomphe.
The day after the defeat against Prussia, Paris was besieged by enemy troops from September 17, 1870 to January 28, 1871. Despite a terrible famine, a feeling of resistance grew among the French people and the sculpted group “Le Départ des Volontaires” otherwise called “La Marseillaise” became the symbol of such resistance.
The Prussian troops may have obtained from Thiers the symbolic occupation of the Champs-Elysées from March 1 to 3, 1871, but from February 28, the Parisians erected barricades around the Arc de Triomphe to protect the four sculpted pillars and prevent the Prussian army from parading under the Arc de Triomphe. When the siege was lifted, the Parisians burnt straw to purify the air.
During the Paris Commune, the Communards decided to protect the Arc de Triomphe at all costs and set up a battery of cannons at the top to respond to the fire from the governement army.
Victor Hugo’s body was presented under the Arc de Triomphe on the night of May 22, 1885 for a funeral wake and on this occasion the monument was draped in a black crepe veil.
The Unknown Soldier was buried there on January 28, 1921 and the flame of remembrance, which was first lit on November 11, 1923, is still rekindled today every evening at 6.30 pm This revival was even accomplished on June 14, 1940, when the German army marched on the Place de l’Étoile a few hours before.
On a more whimsical note, aviator Charles Godefroy succeeded on August 7, 1919 to fly in his biplane under the Arc de Triomphe. The idea will be taken up by Robert Enrico in his 1967 film, “The Last Adventure”, which celebrates brotherhood, friendship and love.
Wrapped, unwrapped, the Arc de Triomphe remains the symbol of a glorious Nation. Majestically planted in the middle of this place where I almost died on my scooter more than once, it remains and will remain the witness to History.
The top of the Arc de Triomphe can be accessed by a staircase. It’s worth the climb to the top as the view is spectacular.
October 22, 2021