Real or Fake? Scientists shine light on the mystery of Manneken Pis


While the peeing boy in the centre of Brussels is a known replica, a team of scientists from VUB is investigating whether its museum-stored counterpart is in fact the original

The boy in bronze

There are many mysteries surrounding the tiny bronze Manneken Pis statue that has such a symbolic value for Belgium. One question that troubles scientists is whether the sculpture currently showcased as the original in Brussels’ city museum Broodhuis is in fact the authentic one. The Free University of Brussels (VUB) is trying to clear up the confusion.

There are a few things that art historians agree on when it comes to Manneken Pis (which means “peeing boy” in Dutch). One of the certainties is that it was created by sculptor Jérôme Du Quesnoy the Elder in 1619, on commission from the City of Brussels. The statuette decorated one of the public fountains, where drinking water was distributed at the time.

A long list of legends has since grown around the sculpture’s meaning. According to one story, the Manneken was a boy who saved the city by peeing on the burning fuses of explosives, with which besiegers wanted to  blow up the city walls. Another tale says that the statue refers to a duke who came into power when he was still a baby. During a battle, his cradle was hung in a tree, from where he supported his soldiers by peeing on enemy troops.

A more sober explanation is that the statuette is an homage to the city’s medieval tanneries, where urine of small children was used in the processing of leather. The ammonia in the urine helped make the leather more supple.

From myths to thieves

After it was installed near the Grote Markt, Manneken Pis was rarely left in peace throughout the centuries. In 1745, English troops abducted the statuette during the War of the Austrian Succession, but it was rescued in the East Flemish town of Geraardsbergen.

Only two years later, soldiers of Louis XV set their collective eye on the cherubic bronze. The French king arrested the culprits and gave the Manneken back, out of fear of a revolt. 

Half the sculpture went missing and was miraculously found in the Brussels canal months later

In 1817, another tumultuous year, Manneken Pis was stolen by a released convict. When it was eventually retrieved, the statuette was in several pieces. The parts were used to create a new boy in bronze.

Almost 150 years later, in 1965, Manneken was the victim of vandals for the last time. Half of the sculpture, from the knees up, went missing. It was found back miraculously in the canal Brussels-Charleroi months later.

After restoration works, the original Manneken was put safely on display inside the Broodhuis on Grote Markt and the empty spot on top of the fountain was replaced with a replica.

But art historians have long since discussed the authenticity of the statuette in the Broodhuis. The latest researcher to tackle the problem is Géraldine Patigny, PhD student at the French-speaking Free University of Brussels (ULB).

As Patigny could not find sufficient info in the archives, she turned to the VUB’s Research Group Electrochemical and Surface Engineering (Surf) for help. A team of scientists, led by post-doctoral researcher Amandine Crabbé, is now examining the chemical composition of the bronze in the hope of shedding some light on the mystery.

X-raying Manneken

“The team has already analysed the surface of Manneken Pis with a portable X-ray fluorescence spectroscope,” explains professor Herman Terryn of Surf. “This technique has the big advantage of being non-invasive.”

The X-ray technique has the big advantage of being non-invasive

- Professor Herman Terryn

If the results of the X-ray prove to be inconclusive due to corrosion or patina coatings on the surface, the researchers may have to take small samples from the statuette to be checked in the lab. With these samples, the patina layers and the composition of the underlying bronze can be investigated in detail.

The scientists are also looking to see if the alloy includes nickel, which was not used in the 17th century. The presence of nickel would indicate that the statuette is a replica from the 19th century, while its absence would suggest it is authentic. “In a few months, we should have a good idea whether the Manneken in the museum is the original,” says Terryn.

Belgians, cross your fingers.

Photo courtesy of Pbrundel / Wikimedia