A zinc coffer containing the heart of the first mayor of Verviers, Belgium, after Belgian independence has been found during restoration of a fountain dedicated to his memory. The monument on Place Verte in downtown Verviers is currently undergoing restoration. The bronze elements have been removed for cleaning and stabilization. Last month, workers found the inscribed mental box ensconced in a cavity behind a stone that was removed. The engraving reads: “The heart of Pierre David was solemnly placed in the monument on 25 June 1883.”
The Walloon city of Verviers was hard hit by the upheavals of the French Revolution, the region’s economy devastated in the wake of annexation to France in 1795. After the final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the former French territory was given to the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, but Dutch rule was overthrown in the Belgian Revolution of 1830.
Verviers’ economy had begun to rebound as part of the sillon industriel, the Walloon industrial backbone. The city was a major center of wool production, and water management played an important role in its development. Numerous fountains were built in the city and today Verviers bears the title of the Walloon Capital of Water.
Born and raised in Verviers, Pierre David was first elected mayor under French rule in 1800, serving eight years. He was elected the first bourgmestre (mayor) of the city after Belgian independence and rebuilt the city after it was damaged in the revolution. He refused all pay for the job, an unusually generous posture He was re-elected mayor in 1836 and served until he was killed suddenly in a freak accident. He fell in his hayloft and suffered a fatal blow to the head. He was 68 years old.
After his death, city officials asked his family for his heart to entomb it in a monument dedicated to his memory. They agreed and a surgeon performed the task. The heart was sealed in a glass jar with alcohol to preserve it while the city raised funds to build the monument. That took a lot longer than expected. During the 44-year wait, the city rang bells annually on the date of his death in memory of him. When the completed monument was finally inaugurated in 1883, it was, fittingly for Verviers, a fountain. The Monument David featured a limestone and bronze bust of the late mayor sculpted by Clément Vivroux, and in a cavity near the bust, the heart was laid to rest.
Over time, the story of the heart of David entombed in the David Monument crossed over the blurry dividing line between fact and legend. Restorers were not expecting to find it.
The Verviers Alderman for Public Works, Maxime Degey, said “an urban legend has become reality: the casket was in the upper part of the fountain, right near the bust of Pierre David, behind a stone which we had removed during the fountain’s renovation”.
Quoted by broadcaster RTBF, he said the casket found by the builders on 20 August was “in really impeccable condition”.
The casket has gone on display in an exhibition dedicated to David, his heart and its monument at the Verviers Museum of Fine Arts. Also exhibited are his funeral mask, photographs, a portrait and the municipal register attesting to the removal and preservation of the heart. It runs through September 20th.