Manneken Pis is a symbol of Brussels, but I will start this post with a fountain from another place.
One of my favourite cities in Europe is Prague: full of wonderful places perfect for walking around, resting and admiring artworks. Surely one of such places is Wallenstein Garden (Valdštejnská zahrada) by one of the greatest palaces in Malá Strana. Among many sculptures decorating this garden we may spot a fountain completed by Nuremberg sculptor Benedikt Wurzelbauer in 1599 (for the garden of Prague palace of Kryštof Popel of Lobkovicz). In 1630 the sculpture was acquired by Albrecht von Wallenstein (Albrecht z Valdštejna, statesman and military leader) and so today it is still in the aforementioned Wallenstein Garden. It is a depiction of Venus and Cupid – water flowing from their mouths, but also from Venus’ breasts and Cupid’s penis.
Water streams coming from Venus’ breasts are especially well captured in the old photograph, published at prazskekasny.cz (coming from a bi-weekly magazine “Světozor” issue from June 9, 1938):
Such a depiction of the goddess is probably a reference to a famous ancient saying “vine is Venus’ milk” (I wrote about it earlier, the post is available HERE). Of course, no wine ran in the garden fountain, though that actually did happen in some other cases. We know from the written sources what kind of party was thrown by the Duke of Burgundy Phillip the Good in Lille on February 17, 1454. It was called The Feast of the Pheasant because the guest took vows on the pheasant regarding planned upcoming crusade (that never happened, in the end). Among the decorations of that feast there was also a figure of a woman, with wine flowing from her breasts. Additionally, there was also a statue of a boy who pissed rose water; perhaps it was Cupid? Depictions of pissing Cupid circulated for centuries in European art, most likely as a humorous reference to fertility and sexual prowess (I wrote about this earlier, too; post is available HERE).
An idea of decorating a fountain with a statue of pissing boy is rooted in ancient art. Quite a puzzling example is a figure in the British Museum in London: its body dates back to the 1st c. AD, but an earlier head (probably from the late 4th c. BC) was at some point attached to it. There is a small pipe inside the figure’s penis, so it was a fountain; question is, whether that was the sculpture’s original purpose, or is it a result of some later renovation.
On the other hand, an ancient statue of Priapus found in the House of the Vettii (Casa dei Vetti) was a fountain from the beginning; it is not a figure of a pissing boy, though, but an image of a grown man. In ancient Rome Priapus was a god that – among others – was a patron of gardens. Nature, fertility of the Earth and vegetation were symbolically linked with sexual connotations.
Similar meaning is probably behind the fountain of pissing boys in the Fontaine des Pisseurs in Lacaune-les-Bains (Tarn department in southern France), which was first built in the 14th century, but completed in the 16th c. Bronze figures of pissing boys, holding quite impressive penises, may serve as a visual celebration of the qualities and importance of local water.
In the Early-Modern European gardens, fountains decorated with a figure of a pissing boy (lat. puer mingens) were very popular. Nowadays the most famous one is a symbol of Brussels: that is Manneken Pis. It is a bronze statue made by Jerôme Duquesnoy in 1619 (the original is now in the city museum, while the street is decorated with a 1965 replica). According to the legend, the 17th c. sculpture replaced earlier late gothic one, made of stone. There are various stories regarding the allegedly original stone figure: one of them states that it was a gift from a wealthy parent, who lost their child in a crowd, but found him pissing in some city street corner. Another says that it was a commemoration of the boy who saved the city by pissing on burning embers – either to put out an upcoming fire, or to make smoke that warned city guards about an enemy approaching the gates. There is also a legend stating that the pissing boy was Godfrey III landgrave of Brabant (1142-1190), who as an infant inspired his troops to fight bravely by pissing ostentatiously (which was read as a sign of his contempt towards the enemy).
We should remember, though, that there used to be many figures such as Manneken Pis all around Europe. A very interesting testimony of that is a painting “Susanna and the Elders” by Andrea Vaccaro (mid-17th c.). It is a Biblical subject, described in the 13th chapter of the extended Book of Daniel: a story about a faithful married woman named Susanna, whom two Elders tried to seduce when she was taking a bath in her private gardens. As you can see, the artist placed a specific sculpture in the depicted garden – perhaps a fountain with a pissing boy here is a reference to the Elders’ sinful desires, but it is also quite a typical element of garden decoration in the 17th century.
It seems that all together puer mingens was perceived as humorous motif. That changed in the 19th century, when it became to come off as indecent. Additionally, the development of technical solutions since the 18th c. led to increase of popularity of fountains with water flowing high. Meanwhile, a pissing figure was designed to accommodate low water pressure. As a result the motif – once popular – died out, and most of the figures of this sort had been removed, and subsequently got lost. Survived Manneken Pis thus became an interesting oddity.
If you want to learn more, check ot the source for this post: Campbell, J. W. P., & Boyington, A. (2019). “The problems of meaning and use of the puer mingens motif in fountain design 1400–1700” w: “Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes”, 40, Article 2. https://doi.org/10.1080/14601176.2019.1675987 – available for download HERE.