To Belgians, the celebrated Manneken Pis — the “peeing boy” in Dutch — is a symbol of Brussels’ capacity for self-mockery. The ability of the city’s inhabitants to laugh at themselves is now being put to the test as scientists attempt to discover whether the famous bronze statue is, in fact, a fake.
City officials make no secret of the fact that the 61cm-tall Mannekin Pis seen urinating into a city fountain is a copy of the original, commissioned by sculptor Jerome Dulquesnoy the Elder and installed in 1619, which now resides in a nearby city museum.
However, scientists say they are not 100 percent sure that the museum’s version is the real thing and are subjecting it to a barrage of tests to find out.
The Manneken Pis has a long and colorful history. One legend suggests it was inspired in 1142 when troops loyal to two-year-old Duke Godfrey III of Leuven put him in a basket in a tree, from where he urinated on enemy soldiers.
Another 14th-century story says inspiration for the statue came after a local boy relieved himself on a burning fuse set by enemies besieging the city to blow up its walls.
Another tale tells of a visitor who, on discovering his missing son answering a call of nature in someone’s garden, offered the statue as a thank you to locals who helped him search for the child.
Damaged by Louis XV’s soldiers in 1747, then stolen, the original reportedly disappeared in the following century and only surfaced when discovered broken in two pieces in a city canal in 1966. It has been pinched, rediscovered and replicated so many times that historians say they have lost track of the original.
A few months ago, the statue was X-rayed for the presence of nickel, which would indicate the statute is more likely to be a 19th-century copy. The results were inconclusive.
Now, minute stone samples are to be scraped from the surface and inside the statue. When compared with others from the same period they will — scientists hope — reveal whether the Manneken Pis is the original, or not.
Brussels Free University historian Geraldine Patigny is part of the team trying to establish fact from fantasy.
“It has a troubled history and there are holes in the story,” Patigny said.
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