Near the Grand-Place, on Rue de l’Etuve, look for the corner fountain occupied by the immortal, but tiny, bronze statue of a little boy urinating into the air from a cocky stance atop a ledge of the fountain. Until the early 17th century, a stone statue dating back to the mid-1400s occupied the same niche and performed the same office; it was known then as “little Julian.” In 1619, the Brussels sculptor Jerome Duquesnoy created a bronze replacement which all the world now knows as the “Mannekin Pis.”

After whom is the little boy modeled? There are at least a dozen competing legends. One is of the little boy-hero of Brussels—Julian—who, using his natural resources, extinguished an incendiary bomb thrown into the street by enemy troops. Another tells of the peasant who came with his little son to a Brussels festival, lost the child in the crowd, found him five days later, and expressed his thanks by sculpting a statue of the boy as he looked when rediscovered: the Mannekin Pis. Still another claims he is the son of a nobleman who attempted to seduce the virtuous Ste. Gudule. Heaven’s punishment was to condemn his son to remain always a child, and always relieving himself (a poor explanation of the sweet little statue).

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Stolen from his niche on numerous occasions, and the subject of other incidents too numerous to describe, Mannekin Pis is today treated as the symbol of Brussels’ ironic, impudent outlook, a mirror of the impiety and cynicism of its average resident. Somehow he fits, and it is hard to imagine him standing on the stately squares of those other European cities that have occasionally sought to dominate the world. Instead, in a Brussels that has witnessed every misfortune, suffered every indignity, and lost all illusions, Mannekin Pis is an artistic summation.