Of the many tourist attractions in Brussels, none can even compare to the notoriety of the Manneken Pis. This little sculpture has been the subject of speculation, amusement, and, most famously, fashionable dress. Despite its small size of just 61 cm (24 in) in height, this monument has become world-famous, thanks in part to its variety of outfits that represent cultures across the globe.
So what is the Manneken Pis? In Dutch the name means “little boy peeing,” and that’s exactly what the sculpture is! The original sculpture was installed in 1619 as part of the public fountain. There is no universally-accepted tale behind the Manneken Pis; for centuries, different stories and legends have formed as to why a young boy urinating is worthy of sculpting and displaying. One version is that in the 12th century, a young boy was placed high in a tree during a battle for safety; and during the battle, he peed on enemy soldiers from up in the tree, confusing the enemies and causing their downfall. Another dates from the 1300s, stating that when Brussels was under attack by a foreign power, the enemy placed explosives on the city wall and lit them. A young boy bravely ran out and peed on the lit fuses, extinguishing each of them, and therefore saving the city from destruction.
Regardless of its origins, the Manneken Pis has become a staple of Brussels, and tourists are encouraged to visit this attraction, whether it be their first or tenth visit to the city. Why? Because the Manneken Pis has also become famous for being dressed up in hundreds of different outfits made just for him, changed as frequently as every week.
Nowadays the outfit schedule is posted nearby to let visitors know what to expect the statue to be wearing; but this tradition actually dates back centuries. Although it became a habitual tradition in the 20th century, records of the statue being dressed up go as far back as the 17th century. Nowadays the statue’s dress often references famous historic individuals or events, coinciding with relevant dates around the person or event. One such instance was the statue being dressed during part of 2009 for the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Belgian inventor Adolph Sax. Sax, as you can imagine by his name (and the statue’s costume), was the inventor of the saxophone.
But the Manneken Pis’ attire isn’t just limited to Belgium. The city commemorates events and individuals worldwide, leading to unique outfits that one would normally never associate with Belgium. For example, the statue was dressed in the traditional costume of the Diablada, a Bolivian folklore dance that is performed during the Carnival in Oruro, a yearly event declared in 2001 by UNESCO, a “Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” .
It is clear that this statue holds meaning not only for the citizens of Brussels, but for visitors and people from all cultures and traditions. While it may seem a bit stereotypical to visit it, we encourage you to take some time out of your schedule to visit this important attraction; even if it makes you feel like a tourist, take part in the experience of seeing a unique and ever-changing part of Brussels’ history.