Only statue in Europe with a costumier

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The Independent Online
ON A SUNNY winter morning, Jacques Stroobants is standing next to his personal charge, the bronze statue of a urinating boy that is probably the most familiar symbol of Brussels.

Mr Stroobants grins when asked if he can alter the angle of the world's best-known "pipi". Without warning, a giant jet of water squirts into the street, scattering a gaggle of Belgian teenagers.

It is not difficult to understand how the Manneken Pis has come to represent the spirit of the Belgian capital. The diminutive statue is more than that, however. Livelihoods in Brussels depend on this irreverent image, copied in key rings, bottle openers and predictably good pralines.

The present statue was commissioned in 1619 from Jerome Duquesnoy. Legend has it that the first costume was offered in 1689, when Maximilian Emmanuel, Elector of Bavaria and Governor of the Netherlands, donated a blue woollen coat. The idea caught on, although for many years the right to give the boy clothes seems to have been a privilege of the rich and powerful.


MR STROOBANTS is the ultimate beneficiary of the munificence of the Manneken Pis and, although it has kept him in employment for almost 25 years, it has not been without some personal sacrifice.

On Christmas Day for example, Mr Stroobants turned out as usual to perform the duties ascribed to the statue's "official dresser". His post is less a job than a vocation, one that means he has never left the city for more than a few days at a time, but he is able to console himself with the fact that abroad comes to him each week with thousands of visitors flocking to see the statue. Even during the Christmas and New Year holiday he leaves home at 7.30am, arriving from the suburb of Haren to dress the Manneken Pis at about 9am. This act is the main focus of the day - a regular ritual on a set number of days each year (250 to be precise). Each day the statue is dressed must end with him being undressed at 8pm. Mr Stroobants saysthere are 641 costumes with a calendar for the dates on which they must be worn. Each 6 April, for example, the anniversary of the day the US entered the First World War, the statue wears the uniform of a Master Sergeant in the US Military Police.


MR STROOBANTS'S first port of call is around the corner in the Grand Place, the 17th-century square that acts as the focal point of the city of Brussels. The Maison du Roi is the city's official museum and home of the Manneken Pis costumes. These range from the historic to the tacky. An Elvis costume is one of the items on display in a glass case stretching around the museum walls. The questionable taste of his outfits has not dented the statue's popularity. Indeed, some of it is rubbing off on his dresser.


TODAY THE Belgian television network VTM wants an interview with Mr Stroobants, underlining his status as a minor celebrity. In the past the Dutch television station, Holland 1, has called, as has CNN, which persisted despite the official dresser's lack of English. At Christmas, another of Mr Stroobants's unusual crop of tasks came around, despite his being on holiday. He is a city employee and, when the festive season comes about, complete with municipal nativity scene, it falls to Mr Stroobants to feed the three sheep who spend Christmas in a specially constructed straw-covered cage.

This task has to be done twice a day, after the Manneken Pis has been dressed and then undressed.


THE FOLLOWING three days of Mr Stroobants's week followed a similar pattern until Tuesday when the statue had a good clean - a task that took Mr Stroobants about half an hour.

The Manneken Pis is relatively low maintenance and Mr Stroobants looks shocked at the suggestion that anti-freeze might be necessary. Because of the constant, 24-hour circulation - "nuit et jour il fait pipi" - the water never freezes over, he says. There are periods, however, when the Manneken's waterworks require special attention. For two days in September beer rather than water passes through the fountain as part of a festival sponsored by a big brewery.


OUTSIDE THE holiday period Mr Stroobants will spend the middle part of the day as an odd job man and decorator in the city's schools.

Any day can come to an early and unpredictable start with a call from the police. The Manneken Pis is kept going for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and any interruption is Mr Stroobants's problem.

The most recent incident occurred in October when, to the horror of a large group of tourists, the Manneken Pis ran dry. The explanation was the usual one in these cases: youngsters had disconnected vital tubing for a prank. Worse has happened in the past.

The Manneken Pis (which was stolen twice in the 18th century by invading armies) fell victim to kidnappers 20 years ago, this time to a group of students.

How does Mr Stroobants feel towards the statue? "Je l'aime bien", he replies in respectful, rather than paternal, tones. Appropriate because the Manneken Pis and his custodian seem to look out for each other.

Stephen Castle