BRUSSELS, Belgium—“This is our Eiffel Tower,” a tourist guide gushed, proudly pointing to the sculpture of a naked boy urinating to a basin. It’s the “mischievous and irreverent” Manneken-Pis—or “little man pee” in the Dutch dialect of Marols or le petit Julien in French—the symbol of this city.
Together with my sisters Margie, Beth and Gemma, my brother-in-law Jerry and my niece Kirsty, we found our way to the fountain from the Grand Place (Grote Markt), past shops selling tempting Belgian chocolates and the delicious smell of Belgian waffles, to join a throng of tourists milling around the junction of Rue du Chêne/Eikstraat and the pedestrian Rue de l’Étuve/Stoofstraat.
I thought the sculpture would be massive, like Michelangelo’s David in Florence. But, like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the Stonehenge, Manneken-Pis is smaller than I expected. The bronze statuette is only 24 inches. Still, its tiny size plays a huge part in this European Union capital’s heritage.
Originally built in the middle ages, the fountain was a source of drinking water for the city dwellers. By 1619, the city commissioned a sculptor, Jérôme Duquesnoy the Elder, to create a statuette in bronze. By the 19th century, it ceased being a water source and purely became ornamental. What’s on view today is only a 1965 replica, the original safely housed from vandals at the Brussels City Museum.
Legends have it that Manneken-Pis is the likeness of Duke Godfrey III of Leuven, a two-year-old lord who peed on their enemy troops in 1142, defeating them eventually; that it was of a boy who peed on an explosive, thereby saving the city from fire; or that of a boy who peed on the door of a witch, who cursed him to freeze for eternity.
What isn’t the stuff of legend, though, is the awesome wardrobe that Manneken-Pis has acquired over the centuries. While the peeing nude statuette was a humorous way for the people of Brussels to piss off prudes, the little boy gets all dressed up, by an official dresser appointed since 1756, on special occasions.
Manneken-Pis is, perhaps, the only secular statue in the world that has an extensive clothing collection especially made for it, much like how we adorn our Santo Niños, or the little boy Jesus.
Just a few steps from the fountain is the Garderobe MannekinPis, a museum that houses the little boys costumes now numbering more than a thousand, mostly gifts from institutions and diplomats. The first outfit recorded was in 1698 but the oldest in the collection dates back to 1747. As Inventory 1, its history goes: “French soldiers in Brussels kidnapped the statue in 1747, but it was quickly recovered. In order to calm Brussels moods, King Louis XV donated a suit and awarded him the title of knight in the Order of Louis IX the Saint.”
Among the sports-themed is a soccer player given by the Royal Racing Club of Brussels in 1946.
The most controversial costume is the “Viennese Laundress,” given by the ballet company Grete Wiesenthal, as the museum noted: “On June 4, 1953, the newspaper Le Peuple titled: ‘The 96th costume for Manneken-Pis is a girl’s dress!’: But the offended, oldest resident of Brussels will never show it off. […] Fortunately, no ceremony was planned at the corner of Stoofstraat and Eikstraat when this costume was handed over. What would the people of Brussels say when they see this brainy little fellow in a girl’s suit, who should put on his dress to do his needs?’ This is the only women’s costume in the Manneken-Pis wardrobe.”
A festive costume is the “Haguette,” donated in 1955, the most symbolic character of the carnival of the Walloon city of Malmedy, Belgium, “recognizable by her big hat with colorful ostrich feathers and kindly grasps the viewer by his ankle with a wooden object, called hape-tchâr, a movable, extendable wooden rake that ends in grippers.”
Manneken-Pis also assumes many personas, such as “Dracula,” a costume given during the International Festival of Fantastic Films in 1987, in the presence of movie Dracula, Christopher Lee. In 2000, the City 2 Shopping Center in this city organized a design competition and the winner, Géraldine Halbart, created a European Union-themed costume with patches of the flags of the member-countries.
The little boy is also an environmental activist, as proven in the 2006 costume, “Climate Change,” given by the European Commission. The boy is also a diplomat, in the guise of a “Dignitary from Kasai, Congo,” given by the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, in 2007.
The fashionable boy went conceptual high fashion in 2010, when the Spanish couture house, Ágatha Ruiz de la Prada, exhibited a costume based on an old Spanish folk expression, Ir and Pelotas, which literally means “being dressed in balls,” or “being naked.”
And there’s a Philippine connection, of course. In 1986, Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs Salvador H. Laurel, on an official visit, gave the boy what looked like a camisa de chino ensemble. I think a barong Tagalog would be a more elaborate, appropriate and more representation of our culture.
Should a Filipino delegation plan to donate another costume, they have to make an official request to the College of the Mayor and Aldermen of the City of Brussels. “A ruling stipulates that certain conditions must be met before a costume can be accepted,” mannekinpis.brussels.com explains. “The material used must be of good quality, to ensure that the garments will remain in a good state of preservation, and the statuette must not be used for political purposes, promoting beliefs or advertising.”