Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Historic Axis and the Arch(es) of Triumph


This post is a bit tricky, because Paris has not one Arc de Triomphe, but two. The larger (1836) sits atop a rise of the Champs-Élysées at the intersection of twelve avenues that form a 12-pointed star, called Place d’Étoile (Square of the Star), subsequently named Place Charles-de-Gaulle.
The smaller one, called Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (1808), is located in the courtyard of the Louvre. So where is the carrousel, you might ask? The "carrousel" referred to was an equestrian gala held by Louis XIV in 1662 to honor the birth of his first child. 15,000 of his nearest and dearest joined him at this spot to watch the king lead a brigade of horsemen dressed as Romans, complete with red plumes mounted atop golden helmets. With gold breastplates. And red stockings.
As if that weren't bad enough, when Napoleon built the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, the color chosen for the Corinthian columns was pink. Click the center photograph above and see for yourself.
But stay with me. Napoleon Bonaparte had these grand arches built to celebrate his military victories, and both of them line up. As in exactly. There is a six mile long sight line (Axe historique) that begins at the Louvre, goes through the Tuileries gardens to the exact center of the Egyptian obelisk at the Place de la Concorde, continues down the middle of the Champs-Élysées on up to the other Arc de Triomphe, then on to the west all the way to the Grand Arch at La Défense (1989, the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution). But for now we’ll stick to the two that had to do with Napoleon.
We’ll start with the smallest one. The four horses at the top are replacements. When Napoleon ransacked Venice, he stole their famous bronze horses from St. Mark’s cathedral and placed them atop this grand arch. After Napoleon’s demise, Venice petitioned successfully to have them returned (but the Venetians failed to mention that they had themselves plundered them from Turkey during the 4th Crusade – but I digress; and Egypt would like that Obelisk of Luxor back, but I digress even further).
On to the big one. When Napoleon dumped his childless wife, Empress Josephine, and married Princess Marie-Louise of Austria in 1810 (the French leaders were adept at marrying Austrians), he wanted his bridal procession to pass through the new arch, which was still 26 years shy of completion. So he had a full size mockup made of painted canvas installed at the site and ordered everyone to keep a straight face. I’m not making this up.
When Napoleon’s body was returned to Paris to be re-interred in the Invalides in 1840, a chariot bearing his remains passed underneath its grand central arch, completed just four years prior.
The proportions of this arch are somewhat odd, in that it is just 16 feet higher than it is wide. It is possible to walk around on the roof, from which there are grand views of central Paris. There is an elevator or a flight of 284 steps. Your choice.
I'm a little disappointed that Napoleon didn't go with his first plan, which was to place a 160-foot tall statue of an elephant spouting water at this spot. After all, Paris has a plethora of grand arches, but still no elephant.

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