Triumphal arch

A triumphal arch is a structure in the shape of a monumental archway, in theory built to celebrate a victory in war, actually used to celebrate a ruler. Invented by the Romans, the classical triumphal arch is a free-standing structure, quite separate from city gates or walls, but the form is often used in engaged arches as well. In its simplest form a triumphal arch consists of two massive piers connected by an arch, crowned with a flat superstructure or attic on which a statue might be mounted or which bears commemorative inscriptions. The structure should be decorated with carvings, notably including "Victories", winged female figures (very similar to angels), a pair of which typically occupy the curved triangles beside the top of the arch curve. More elaborate triumphal arches have flanking subsidiary archways, typically a pair.

The rhythmic ABA motif—of central arched void flanked by smaller ones—was adapted in Classical architecture, particularly since the Renaissance, to articulate the walls of structures. The voids may take the form of niches or be "blind", with masonry continuous behind.

Roman triumphal arches

The tradition dates back to ancient Rome and is connected to the Senate's custom of granting Roman triumphs. Surprisingly little is known about how the Romans used triumphal arches; the only ancient author who discussed them was Pliny the Elder, writing in the first century AD. They are not mentioned at all by Vitruvius, the first century BC writer on Roman architecture. Pliny describes them as being honorary monuments of unusual importance, erected to commemorate triumphs. By the second century arches were being erected to commemorate other events, such as the surviving triumphal arch at Ancona, erected by a grateful city to commemorate Trajan's improvements to the harbor.

It is unclear when the Romans first began erecting triumphal arches. They originated some time during the Roman Republican era, during which time three were erected in Rome, the earliest being one to Lucius Stertinius built in 196 BC. These appear to have been temporary structures, and none now survive. Most triumphal arches were built during the Roman Empire. By the fourth century, thirty-six triumphal arches can be traced in Rome. Only five now survive (see list below).

The arches of Rome became increasingly elaborate over the centuries. They were at first very simple symbolic temporary gateways to the city, being built of brick or stone with a semicircular arched heading and hung with trophies of captured arms. Later arches were built of high-quality marble with a large central arch in the middle, its ceiling treated as a barrel vault, and sometimes two smaller ones on each side, adorned with a complete Architectural order, of columns and entablature, enriched with symbolic or narrative bas-reliefs and crowned with bronze statues, often a quadriga. The festive Corinthian order was the usual one.

Post-Roman triumphal arches

Triumphal arches in the Roman style were revived during the Renaissance, when there was a Europe-wide upswelling of interest in the art and architecture of ancient Rome. Between the 15th and 19th century, kings and emperors erected numerous triumphal arches in conscious imitation of the Roman tradition. One of the earliest was the "Aragonese Arch" at the Castel Nuovo in Naples, erected by Alfonso V in 1443, although like the later Porta Capuana this was engaged as part of the entrance to the castle. Temporary examples were erected in enormous numbers for festivities such as Royal Entries from the late Middle Ages onwards. The Emperor Maximilian I commissioned the artist Albrecht Dürer to design an elaborately decorated monumental arch in woodcut for him (3.75 metres high, in 192 different sheets), which was never intended to be built, but was printed in an edition of 700 copies and distributed to be coloured and pasted on the walls of large rooms. Louis XIV of France and Napoleon Bonaparte both erected arches to commemorate their military triumphs, most famously the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Arches were erected for similar purposes in the U.K., the United States, Germany, Romania, Russia and Spain, amongst other countries. Built to honour and glorify President Kim Il Sung and modeled after the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang is the largest arch in the world. A far larger arch was planned for Berlin by Adolf Hitler and his architect Albert Speer, but construction was never begun.

Temporary triumphal arches are still constructed, intended to be used for a celebratory parade or ceremony and then be dismantled afterwards.

List of triumphal arches

For Roman ones only, see List of ancient Roman triumphal arches

Permanent monumental triumphal arches include:


  • Timgad, Trajan's Arch, partially restored arch in a Roman colonial town













  • Triumphal Arch, Vác









North Korea






  • Arco de la Victoria, Madrid. Inaugurated in 1956 after the Spanish civil war (1936-1939) to conmemorate Franco's victory.
  • Arc de Triomf, Barcelona, built as the entrance gate for the 1888 Universal Exhibition so it is not, strictly speaking, a triumphal arch as it was not built to commemorate any military victory. Nevertheless, it is built and named as a triumphal arch.

There are many similar monuments in Spain which were originally built as gates in city walls and therefore cannot be considered triumphal arches in any sense except in their resemblance. In Madrid there are the Puerta de Alcalá, Puerta de Toledo, Puerta de San Vicente, Puerta de Hierro, etc.




United Kingdom

United States


Line notes

See also


External links

  • Lacus Curtius website: "Triumphal arch" from William Smith, A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875
  • Signa Romanorum: the Roman monuments website
  • Parlington Hall website "Triumphal Arch" built for Sir Thomas Gascoigne to commerorate the American Victory in the War of Independence, Aberford, Yorkshire, England, circa 1783.

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