Triumphal Arches

The Triumphal arch remains one of the most iconic architectural forms
used throughout history. Rulers have repeatedly used the Roman arch to glorify
and memorialise themselves, their empires and conquests because of the arch’s
symbolism and grandeur. Particularly standalone triumphal arches are used as
they have been monuments of power and victory since Roman times. However, their
popularity also stems from their majestic form which then creates an impressive
passageway, whether as a standalone arch, part of a façade or internal
structure. During the Roman period triumphal arches were predominantly were
built as reminders of military success.


The Ancient Roman Triumphal Arches began as standalone structures that
were a development of a city gateway, ‘…wooden
structures raised across the streets where the triumphal processions passed.
These fragile and temporary constructions undoubtedly supplied the original
model of the form and decoration of triumphal arches.’ 1 They
began as structures with a broad rounded arch that allows for people to pass
through it. Roman citizens were likely to have made an association between the
gates and them being used for military processions. This will have prompted
Emperors using this arch style for triumphal monuments;


‘By the time of Augustus, the arched city
gateway had been fully metamorphosed into the type of arch commonly called
triumphal.’ 2


At their most
basic triumphal arches function as passageways; ‘the principle functions of an
arch – view-framing, penetration, entrance, passage and transition.’ 3
It is the added features, such as pilasters, columns and pediments, that create
the distinctive look, that meant triumphal arches were ‘established as symbols
of both the Roman rule and of Roman cities.’ 3 Standalone triumphal
arches generally either had one arch or had one central main arch with two
smaller arches either side. The arches are framed by columns which creates a
rhythm of narrow wide narrow across the structure. The arches were framed and
‘ornamented with Corinthian or composite pilasters or columns’ which created a
rhythm of narrow wide narrow across the façade. 4 The original Roman
triumphal arches were built with a large rectangular entablature extending out
from above the main arch. This is where any inscriptions would be engraved.
Generally, during Roman times, the inscription would state the emperor and
victory that was being memorialised by the arch. 2 The lettering was
made easy to read by being large and spaced out. 5 Hence
purposefully making sure onlookers could read and understand the victory being
commemorated by the arch.


One of the first standalone triumphal arches, the Arch of
Titus was built in 82 AD near the Roman Forum by Emperor Domitian, subsequent
to the death of Titus. 6The purpose for the arch construction was to
commemorate Titus’ defeat of Jerusalem. 7  The Arch of Titus became an influential design
and many architects have used it as the model for future arch designs. A large
attic is used above the entablature which creates the overpowering and heavy
feeling to the arch. The carvings on panels show the victory procession that
happened and other details of events that glorify the emperor and city. The
barrel vault interior is decorated with carvings, with the idea that people
would see them as processions went through the arch. This permanent marble arch
is meant to tell a story that the emperor wants documented and remembered. 8

Leon Battista
Alberti’s Basilica of Sant’Andrea in Mantua

They later became used as wall perforations, providing structure
and division between spaces.

The façade of The Basilica of Sant
Andrea is majorly
influenced by the roman triumphal arch. The architect clearly wanted the
cathedral to appear striking and dominant which he has done by combining aesthetics
of the triumphal arch with strong geometry.

than columns between the arches, the architect has used Corinthian pilasters
instead. The rhythm between the pilasters remains the same as between triumphal
arch columns: narrow, wide, narrow. 9 A pediment replaces the normal
attic usually used on triumphal arches, suggesting also influence from the
Pantheon, Rome. The architect was greatly inspired by Roman architecture perhaps
suggesting how he admired the roman empire and wanted to replicate their mighty

In The Basilica of Sant Andrea the triumphal arch has been adapted
to suit the façade
whilst still keeping the essence and hence grand appearance of the ancient
roman design. This shows the triumphal arch is a strong and distinguishable
form that can be modified and combined with many building types, features and

The triumphal arch as a passageway develops well and lends
itself to being an entrance. The archway is punctured into the façade allowing
for a covered area which is a barrel vault. It is known that this building will
act as a place pilgrims will gather so many will look upon it. This made the
external appearance of the church of great importance. The building contains
what is thought to be the blood of Christ, making the church home to a relic
and hence a sacred place. 9 Unlike Roman triumphal arches, the
façade does not have an inscription so there is no reason made clear that the
arch form is being used for victorious reasons. However, Christ Muscato puts
forward the idea in an article; ‘considering that the story of the Crucifixion
ends in Christ’s triumph over death, the use of a triumphal arch as the basis
of the façade us significant.’ 10 As well as drawing public
attention due to the grand and dominant façade, the building reminds onlookers
of the power of Christ and the perhaps the church.


Paris features the triumphal arch throughout the city’s

Both the Arc de Triomphe d’Etoile and the Arch de Triomphe were
commanded to be built by Napoleon I to honour his army’s victories and their
construction began in 1806.17 Joanna Richardson states in a journal
that ‘it [the Arc de Triomphe] gives the measure of the ambitions of the
Empire.’ 11 The arch was a statement of Napoleon’s intent for the
future of his empire, and Napoleon knew how the symbolism of the triumphal arch
would clearly do this.

The Arc de Triomphe d’Etoile is a standalone structure with
one main arch and is thought to be modelled on the Roman Arch of Titus. Two
smaller arches at the ends of the structure are perpendicular to the main arch,
creating two passageways that cross each other.  

The monument is 164 by 148 feet(12), which is much
larger than any Ancient Rome Triumphal arches; ‘Napoleon commissioned Arc de
Triomphe to bury Caesar, not to praise him’. 
13 Napoleon wanted to show that his army and empire was
greater than Caeser’s, and showed this by enlarging and advancing the Roman
design. The arch is positioned at the end of the Champ Delysees in central
Paris, one of the most famous and popular streets in France to walk meaning it
would be regular seen by the public.14, 15 Napoleon’s choice of
location and size, plus his knowledge of the triumphal arch’s symbolism, meant
he purposefully has created a monument that is a constant reminder to
passers-by of Napoleon’s conquests and France’s patriotism. Joanna Richardson
states in a journal that ‘it [the Arc de Triomphe] gives the measure of the
ambitions of the Empire.’ 16 The arch was a statement of Napoleon’s
intent for the future of his empire, and Napoleon knew how clearly the
symbolism of the triumphal arch would do this.

Arc de Triomphe du Carousel, as well as being a commemorative monument, was
built as gates to Tuileries Palace before it later burnt down.17
This triumphal arch has three arches, two of them being smaller flanking arches
so it is thought to influenced by the larger-in-size Arch of Septimus Severus.18
The columns have Corinthian order decoration, and each has a statue of a
soldier on top.19 These statues make clear what the arch is
commemorating. The arch had the practical purpose of initially being a gateway and
it also fulfilled Napoleon’s desire to commemorate his military victories.


Triumphal arches are rarely used for buildings or facades
that will not be publicly seen. Hence suggesting their continued use being mainly
for aesthetic reasons and not functional.

William McDonald states that the combination of ‘structural
versatility and many functional and symbolic uses insured its presence
empire-wide’. He is referring specifically to the Roman empire, however it is
also true for the use of the triumphal arch in Western Architecture generally.
After the Roman empire there have been fewer wars and power hungry dictators
hence the desire for standalone triumphal arches to commemorate victories has
reduced. However this does not mean that arches were then only used for
aesthetic purposes. Triumphal arches are rarely used for buildings or facades
that will not be publicly seen. Hence suggesting their continued use being
mainly for aesthetic reasons and not functional.


In the last
century years, fewer triumphal arches were built to celebrate military
victories in the west, but Fascist architecture has western culture there are not many political and
military wars, however triumphal arches are still used.