The first of many facts that this reader gleaned from Peter Howell’s The Triumphal Arch (see ‘Further reading’ on p.38) is that the English name is a misnomer. ‘Triumphs’ were rare under the Roman Empire (as Mary Beard has shown in her 2007 book, The Roman Triumph), only held in Rome and only by emperors, whereas arches are found throughout the Empire. The German term Ehrenbogen and the Italian arco onorario, both meaning ‘honorific arch’ are more correct, and that certainly fits with the erection of such arches in more recent times as memorials commemorating the collective war dead rather than an individual’s victories. Second, there is no doubt that, for once, this arch was a Roman invention: every attempt to find a Greek prototype, so often the source for ‘Roman’ architectural and artistic productions, has failed.
Triumphs and victories
Although we have literary references to earlier commemorative arches, the first visual record comes in the form of a coin minted in 16 BC. Arches that pre-date this were erected, according to Livy’s History of Rome (written between 27 and 9 BC), by Lucius Stertinius in 196 BC. He put 50,000 pounds of silver into Rome’s treasury (out of the booty he acquired as proconsul of south-east Spain) to pay for the erection of two arches in front of the Temples of Fortuna and Mater Matuta, and their decoration with gilded bronze statues.
Next in chronological order was the arch erected ‘opposite the road by which one climbs to the Capitolium’ by Scipio Africanus. This might have been connected to his defeat of the Carthaginians under Hannibal, but that took place in 201 BC and the arch was erected in 190. Livy tells us that it was decorated with seven gilded statues, two horses, and two marble basins, and it was sited ‘opposite’ rather than across the road.
By contrast the third arch, probably erected in 121 BC, is definitely connected with a triumph: that of Fabius Maximus Allobrogicus for his defeat of the Allobroges (the people of the lower Rhone valley) and the Arverni (modern Auvergne), whose captive ruler, Bituitus, was paraded in his silver armour. From his plunder, Fabius had the Fornix Fabianus built in 121 BC (fornix is another name for an arch), and this time it straddled a major route, the Via Sacra, in the Forum Romanum. Excavators in the 16th century found evidence that it was made of tufa (porous limestone), and that it had reliefs carved with symbols of shields and trophies, as well as an inscription mentioning portraits (possibly busts within niches) of Fabius’ ancestors.
A coin confirms these descriptions: its reverse shows a central arch surmounted by a quadriga (a four-horse chariot) and two side arches, each bearing a large statue. One figure holds a bow, the characteristic weapon of the Parthians, whose defeat the arch commemorates, and the other is depicted surrendering his battle standard to the victor, the Imperator Caesar, whose portrait bust appears on the obverse.
Peter Howell concludes that the earliest arches were thus connected with major military victories, though not necessarily with triumphs, and that they served as platforms for statuary and trophies. They were paid for out of booty and they are associated with temples; although they were freestanding, they did not always straddle a road. Such constructions served as a constant reminder to everyone who passed by, or through, of the glorious victory commemorated, and their form probably owed much to the arched gates piercing the walls of Etruscan cities, such as Volterra and Perugia, with a central arch for wheeled traffic and smaller side arches for pedestrians.
While no physical arches survive from the Roman Republican era, we have more than 50 from the period of the Empire, and many more that survive as fragments or buried features – including two from Roman Britain. The first was completed in about AD 85 at Richborough in Kent, where the mound covering the foundations of the arch is still visible. It straddled Watling Street, the main road to London, and symbolised Richborough’s status as the accessus Britanniae (‘the approach to Roman Britain’, a phrase borrowed by the late Donald Strong from the words accessus Italiae inscribed on Trajan’s arch at Ancona). It was probably built to commemorate the governorship of Agricola (AD 77-84), the general who did so much to consolidate the conquest of Britain, and its estimated height of 25m made it one of the largest examples in the Empire.
The arch had outlived its purpose by AD 273, when it was first used as a lookout against pirates operating in the Channel and North Sea, and then demolished so that the masonry could be recycled to build the shore fort that survives at Richborough (see CA 382), part of a chain of such forts built to defend the eastern and southern coasts of Britain. (It is now in the care of English Heritage, whose website has some fine reconstruction drawings of the arch.)
London’s arch suffered a similar fate. No arch was known to exist until 1974, when a team of four students (including one Christopher Catling) led by Martin Millett laboured all summer to excavate a very narrow and ultimately very deep trench alongside the Mermaid Theatre on Upper Thames Street. The aim was to establish whether or not Roman London’s defensive wall ran alongside the Thames (a D-shaped city wall), or whether the Thames itself served as the southernmost defence (a C-shaped wall).
As so often happens in archaeology, confirmation of the existence of a riverside wall only came in the closing hours of the dig, but the site’s developers subsequently offered to extend the 3m-wide trench for a further 115m while making a promotional film to demonstrate that their new Hymac excavator was capable of digging (almost) as delicately as any archaeologist wielding a trowel. What the Hymac uncovered was a substantial length of wall constructed on a chalk raft supported by tightly packed rows of timber piles. Radiocarbon and dendrochronological dating of these piles indicated that the wall was built in the 4th century, probably after AD 330.
A further surprise awaited, for when the stones used to form the wall’s parapet walk were turned over, they were found to be carved with reliefs of high artistic quality that had once formed part of a triumphal arch, at least 6m high and 7.5m wide, and a separate monumental screen. Dating stylistically to the early 3rd century, both monuments had been dismantled after a century to serve as a quarry for the newly constructed riverside wall. This time, the motifs are all religious or secular, rather than military: vine-scroll and acanthus leaf, cupids and sea monsters, full-length figures of Minerva and Hercules, and busts of Mars, Mercury, Venus, Apollo, and Luna (possibly representing days of the week).
Already, then, the honorific arch had ceased to be exclusively military or political. In the final excavation report published in 1980 (see ‘Further reading’ on p.38), Professor Jocelyn Toynbee (1897-1985), then Britain’s foremost scholar of Roman art, hailed it as a momentous discovery and said it had more in common with the Porte de Mars in Reims and the Porte Noir at Besançon than with the triumphal arches of Rome, Orange, and Leptis Magna.
The English Renaissance
For the next phase in the history of the arch, in Britain at least, we have to leap forward to the first half of the 16th century, when Cardinal Wolsey, with aspirations to the papacy, was determined to demonstrate his suitability for the post by sponsoring artists who were familiar with the latest Renaissance ideas. Thus, when French ambassadors visited Greenwich in 1527 to negotiate a potential marriage between Princess Mary (later Mary I) and François I, the banqueting hall constructed for the occasion included a timber and canvas triumphal arch, fatto a l’anticha (‘made in the antique style’) and designed by the Florentine sculptor Giovanni da Maiano. This featured ‘antique hedds’ of Roman emperors, generals, and deities, and grotesque ornamentation. Similar temporary arches, painted on canvas on a timber frame, played a leading role in London’s pageants and theatrical events, including the coronation processions of Anne Boleyn in 1533 (whose arch is said to have been designed by Hans Holbein the Younger), Mary I in 1553, Elizabeth I in 1559, James I in 1604, Charles I in 1626, and Charles II (who wanted a ‘traditional entry procession’) in 1661.
The first permanent building to reflect the influence of the triumphal arch was Somerset House in London, built between 1547 and 1552. Surviving now only in the form of a drawing by John Thorpe, in Sir John Soane’s Museum, it shows the influence and role of Serlio’s recently published treatise On Antiquities (1540). The Somerset House gatehouse then became influential in its own right: Sir John Summerson (1904-1992), the leading architectural historian and author of The Classical Language of Architecture (1965), claimed that it was ‘unquestionably one of the most influential buildings of the English Renaissance’.
One of its distinguishing features was the inclusion of a sequence of Classical orders, illustrating what was then considered to be the evolution of the orders from simple to progressively more ornate capitals (Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian). This idea caught on in various forms at Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire (1572); Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge (1575); Burghley House, Lincolnshire (1583); Stonyhurst, Lancashire (1595); and Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (1612), as well as at Oxford’s Bodleian Library (1613-1624).
About this time, the triumphal arch became a frequent model for church monuments, perhaps (as architectural historian Adam White suggests) representing the gate of heaven. One of the earliest examples in Britain is the monument to Richard Jervoise (d. 1563) in All Saints’ Church, Chelsea. This looks all the more striking now because the tomb chest that once stood within the arch has gone, so it stands alone, an incongruous free-standing arch that looks strikingly secular in the context of an ecclesiastical setting. James I also commissioned magnificent free-standing monuments in the form of triumphal arches for the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots, which (ironically, given that Elizabeth had Mary executed) stand side by side in the south aisle of the Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey.
More typical are the hundreds of wall monuments of the later 16th and early 17th centuries, which are also based on the tripartite form of the triumphal arch, ornamented with allegorical statues and hung with garlands and symbols of death and mourning – for the arch had by this time shifted its meaning from the triumph of a military leader in battle to the hoped-for triumph of the deceased over death (or the more Augustan hope that the fame and accomplishments of the deceased will be kept alive by the memorial). Splendid monuments of this kind are found in churches all over the UK, and are represented in Westminster Abbey, for example, by the well-carved memorials to John, Lord Russell (d. 1584) and Mildred, Lady Burghley (d. 1589).
The next manifestation of the triumphal arch takes us out of doors but away from their original urban setting to the estates and parks of the 18th- and 19th-century aristocracy and gentry. This was an age of antiquarian rediscovery and the love of all things Classical – though Alexander Pope, who (with his friend the Earl Bathurst) was an accomplished landscape designer, was scathing of those who lacked a proper understanding of the Roman prototypes and ‘turn Arcs of Triumph to a Garden-gate’, or who show excessive self-regard by erecting arches to their own glorification, hanging ‘their old trophies o’er the Garden gates’.
One that genuinely does commemorate military prowess is the grandiose gateway that leads from the town of Woodstock, Oxfordshire, into the park surrounding Blenheim Palace, completed in 1723 to the design of Nicholas Hawksmoor. Another at Duncombe Park, North Yorkshire, dating from 1806, is inscribed ‘to the memory of Lord Viscount Nelson and the unparalleled gallant achievements of the British Navy’, but many more were built purely for decorative purposes, as follies, eye-catchers, and park gates flanked by lodges; as the entrance to a stable block; or as a garden pavilion, sometimes straddling a spring or cascade. Some of these were based on genuine Roman examples, as illustrated in the increasingly popular books of engravings of Classical ruins, as well as the books De Architectura of Roman author Vitruvius, Alberti’s Renaissance treatise On the Art of Building, Palladio’s The Four Books of Architecture, and The Designs of Inigo Jones, published by William Kent in 1727.
Inigo Jones’ splendid Temple Bar gateway, intended to straddle the Strand as the ceremonial western entrance to the City of London, was never built. Based on the Arches of Septimius Severus and Constantine in Rome, with symbolic reliefs based on Roman coins, it would have stood 60 feet high, topped by an equestrian statue of Charles I flanked by Hercules and Neptune, with reliefs of flying Victories holding garlands (the design survives in a drawing dated 1638). The Temple Bar that now stands beside St Paul’s Cathedral, at the entrance to Paternoster Square, was commissioned by Charles II to commemorate the Restoration and is attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, but it is much diminished following its post-Fire rebuilding.
Decorated with statues of Charles I, Charles II, James I, and Anne of Denmark, it reminds us that no permanent arch was erected in London to a single monarch, despite proposals to do so. Giacomo Leoni’s design for an arch to George I in Hyde Park was published in 1726, but never built, and a painting of 1746 by Antonio Visentini and Francesco Zuccarelli, of an imaginary arch to honour George II (clearly based on Inigo Jones’ Temple Bar design), exists in the Royal Collection.
What London does have are the Marble Arch and the Wellington Arch, neither of which, says Peter Howell, has a happy story. The Marble Arch, which now stands at the northern end of Park Lane, was planned as a grand entrance to the courtyard in front of Buckingham Place, and it would have celebrated British naval and military victories during the Napoleonic Wars. A plaster model of 1826 in the Victoria and Albert Museum shows the intended design, based on the Arch of Constantine, with reliefs depicting the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo, along with scenes from the life of Nelson, statues of naval and military heroes, and a bronze equestrian statue of George IV.
The costs rose, and work stopped after George’s death. A much- reduced version was completed in 1833, only for the arch to be dismantled and rebuilt at its current site in 1851. Richard Westmacott’s Waterloo Vase and the Nelson friezes were incorporated into the rebuilt Buckingham Palace, while his Victory statues and the reliefs of Europe and Asia paying tribute to Britain, as well as the Britannia sculpture, were reused at the National Gallery. The equestrian statue of George IV, planned for the plinth at the top of the arch, now stands on one of the pedestals in Trafalgar Square.
That other monument to the defeat of Napoleon, the Wellington Arch, was enthusiastically supported when it was first proposed, but by the time the designs emerged the estimates of the cost had risen and the Treasury called works to a halt. As a result, much of the decoration again remained unexecuted, though a stripped down version was completed in 1838, originally forming part of the entrance to Hyde Park, alongside Wellington’s residence, Apsley House.
It was topped by what many considered to be an absurdly large bronze equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington, some 8.5m high and the largest of its kind ever made. The decision in 1883 to move the arch to its current island site was used as the opportunity to remove the statue to a new pedestal near the Garrison Church at Aldershot, Hampshire, where, almost inevitably, the town’s main shopping mall is called the Wellington Centre. A much better sculpture took its place: Adrian Jones’ magnificent four-horse chariot now crowns the arch, described by the sculptor as: ‘Peace descending on the Quadriga of War’. Set up in 1912, it brought a spirited expression of optimism to London that would shortly be shattered by the outbreak of the First World War.
In some ways, that transformation of the Wellington Arch from a personal memorial to an individual’s military exploits into something more universal was prescient. Peter Howell points to the Royal Engineers’ Memorial at Brompton Barracks in Chatham, Kent, as the earliest example of an arch erected to mark lives lost in war. Completed in 1861 to the design of Matthew Digby Wyatt, it commemorates ‘the War with Russia, 1854-5-6’, and the marble slabs on both sides of the arch are engraved the names of every member of the corps who died in active service in the Crimea.
Further memorials based on the triumphal arch were built in parks and national cemeteries in the USA for the dead of the Civil War (1861-1865), retrospectively for the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and in England, Ireland, and South Africa for the soldiers killed in the Boer War (1899-1902). In various transformations of the basic form, it became the standard for First World War Memorials – imaginatively reinvented by Edwin Lutyens, among others, from a triumphal arch to an Arch of Remembrance at Étaples (1919) and Thiepval (originally designed for Arras in 1924 and redesigned in 1926), the latter being the only memorial to commemorate both the French and the English victims of the Battle of the Somme. Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967), decorated for bravery during the First World War, was not impressed by these efforts at commemoration, however. In his poem ‘On Passing the New Menin Gate’, he wrote: ‘Well might the Dead who struggled in the slime/Rise and deride this sculpture of crime’.
Too much use has been made of triumphal arches in more recent times to promote self-serving political ideologies (like the one designed by Adolf Hitler for Berlin in 1925), to honour dictators and self-declared presidents and emperors, or to promote falsehoods (Peter Howell quotes the example of the ‘People’s Friendship Arch’, in Kyiv, inaugurated in 1982 to commemorate the ‘unification of Russia and Ukraine’).
Such abuse has caused the decline in popularity of the triumphal arch in the 20th century, and in the lead-up to the millennium, no parish council responded to the suggestion by the UK Millennium Commission that they should mark the occasion by erecting temporary arches. That should not deter us from appreciating the many extraordinary and imaginative variations on the form that have been erected since antiquity in every part of the world, pictures and examples of which fill Peter Howell’s comprehensive history.
Further reading Peter Howell, The Triumphal Arch, Unicorn Publishing, £50, ISBN 978-1913491406. Charles Hill, Martin Millett, and Thomas Blagg, The Roman Riverside Wall and Monumental Arch in London, London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, Special Paper No.3, ISBN 978-0903290180. Available via www.lamas.org.uk/ archives/special-papers/hill1980.html.