The western Mediterranean subduction zone (WMSZ) extends from the northern Apennine to southern Spain and turns around forming the narrow and tight Calabrian and Gibraltar Arcs. The evolution of the WMSZ is characterized by a first phase of orogenic wedging followed, from 30 Ma on, by trench retreat and back-arc extension. Combining new and previous geological data, new tomographic images of the western Mediterranean mantle, and plate kinematics, we describe the evolution of the WMSZ during the last 35 Myr. Our reconstruction shows that the two arcs form by fragmentation of the 1500 km long WMSZ in small, narrow slabs. Once formed, these two narrow slabs retreat outward, producing back-arc extension and large scale rotation of the flanks, shaping the arcs. The Gibraltar Arc first formed during the middle Miocene, while the Calabrian Arc formed later, during the late Miocene-Pliocene. Despite the different paleogeographic settings, the mechanism of rupture and backward migration of the narrow slabs presents similarities on both sides of the western Mediterranean, suggesting that the slab deformation is also driven by lateral mantle flow that is particularly efficient in a restricted (upper mantle) style of mantle convection.