Wednesday, 14 October 2009

When You Gotta Go, You Gotta Go

The Grand Place, Brussels' town square, is reputed to be the most spectacular in the world. It is certainly the most beautiful that I have seen (sorry, Fed Square!)

It is bordered by a remarkably harmonious mix of Gothic and Baroque buildings: the houses of the city's medieval guilds, the magnificent Town Hall and the palatial Maison du Roi which is no longer the king's house but now serves as the City Museum.

It is while I was wandering about in the museum, enjoying the eclectic collection that includes tapestries, objets d'art and a fine collection of paintings by Rubens and Breughel, that I serendipitously happened upon a roomful of Mannekin Pis clones, all in fancy dress!

We all know the story of Mannekin Pis, more politely known by his French name of Petit Julien … the little boy who saved the city by peeing on a burning fuse during the siege of 1386 / climbing a tree and peeing on some of the enemy soldiers, unnerving them to such an extent that they lost the battle / more mundanely, was lost and found peeing on a street corner. Take your pick.

Either way, there has been a Mannekin Pis statue on the corner of Rue de l'Étuve and Rue du Chêne since 1388. Not the same statue, mind you … the first was made of stone and was stolen, to be replaced in 1619 by the current bronze one.

I had been to see the little guy earlier that day, but he was in his birthday suit. I had to elbow my way to the front of the throng of fellow-tourists taking his picture. You have to get quite close for a good look because he is surprisingly small. Don't know why this should have surprised me – he is only two years old after all!

We are all so familiar with reproductions of famous works of art … have you noticed how, when you see an original painting or sculpture for the first time, it is always bigger or smaller than you imagined? Surprisingly, the Mona Lisa is tiny; you could cover Vermeer's exquisite interiors with a sheet of A3 paper; Michaelangelo's David is an unexpected giant.

But back to Petit Julien, as I like to call him in ladylike fashion: I knew he has been there for centuries and I knew his urologist, (a.k.a the City Plumber) connects him to a large keg of beer on special festive occasions. What I did not know, is that he has more outfits than Paris Hilton, and he wears them on appropriate days.

There are more than 800 costumes stored in the museum, each with an opening in the appropriate spot. Only 120 are on display at any given time, modelled by plastic replicas of Petit Julien. He received his first costume in 1698: a uniform in "Bavarian blue" from the Prince-Elector of Bavaria.

In 1747 he was stolen by a French grenadier and once he was found and restored to his rightful place, King Louis XV offered him the court costume of a Marquis in apology. I don't know what happened to the larcenous Grenadier, but given that he had embarrassed the King, I'm tipping it would have been something unpleasant.

Petit Julien has been given many costumes over the years, but they are strictly vetted by a committee for quality and accuracy before they are accepted. The same committee regulates his schedule of costume changes, which take place to the accompaniment of a brass band.

On their birthdays he dresses like Elvis, Maurice Chevalier and Mozart; he wears the Boy Scout outfit on Baden-Powell's birthday. When Belgium's national soccer team takes the field, he is in his footy gear and when they serve the first ball at Wimbledon, he is in tennis togs.

On the anniversary of Mandela's release from prison, he dons the distinctive grey Afro wig and colourful shirt; on the anniversary of the liberation of Belgium in 1944, he wears the uniform of a Sergeant-Major in the Welsh Guards.

He has a pink outfit for Gay Pride Day; come Christmas he dons the red Santa suit and on Puccini's birthday he dresses like Gianni Schichi. I don't know if he has an Asterix outfit, but he looks very cute as Obelix, pot belly and all!

I have been to see him twice since I first laid eyes on his naked little bronze body: once he was dressed as a Postie, complete with mailbag. The Postal Workers' Union had kindly given him the uniform. The last time I saw him, he was in an exquisite if rather louche leather costume, donated by the Chinese city of Hai Ning, famous for its leather industry.

Visiting dignitaries often present him with a small but perfect copy of their country's national dress: he wears it on their national day. Why has Australia not given him a tiny Drizabone and Akubra to wear on Australia Day? Someone should alert Kevin.

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