Under the darkness of night while the people of Konstanz, Germany, slept, a 29.5-foot-tall statue weighing 18 tons was brought to the port and erected in mid-August 1993. The statue and its design were created by sculptor Peter Lenk and remained physically “under wrap” for five days until April 24 when it was unveiled.
People gathered in the harbor that day and bit by bit, the dark wrapping around the statue revealed a striking woman with a large bosom barely hidden by her dress. More scandalous though was that she held two tiny naked figures in her hands—Pope Martin V and Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund.
One could only imagine what was going on in the minds of the people of Konstanz as they watched the statue rotate on her axis, completing a circle in four minutes. Perhaps in learning that the statue was a sex worker called Imperia did things start to make sense.
Imperia sits on the edge of the Konstanz Port on Lake Constance, or what the Germans call Bodensee. She is one of the first things that people see when arriving by boat and is eagerly sought out by tourists who come by land. In 2018, the managing director of marketing and tourism of Konstanz told Südkurier that of the 6 million people who visited the city, 1.6 million visited Imperia.
“It’s an artwork that arouses curiosity and can’t be overlooked. She turns on her axis, making her a moving target for the eyes,” explained Thea Mostyn of the Konstanz Tourism Board to The Daily Beast. “The statue is definitely beautiful and holds an exciting, informative story.”
In the 1990s, the Bodensee Ship company and Konstanz’s tourism association commissioned Peter Lenk to create a statue. Lenk is a German sculptor best known for creating satirical sculptures and art—often related to nudity or human genitalia. His work, like Friede sei mit Dir, an art piece that represents a former newspaper editor-in-chief’s large genitalia on the side of a building in Berlin, and Ludwigs Erb, which features naked German politicians like Angela Merkel, has elicited controversies and discussion across Germany.
“Peter Lenk had not disclosed any details on what exactly [the statue] would be. He invoked artistic license and offered to take it down if it wasn’t liked,” said Mostyn.
In 2018, Südkurier reported that the 1993 Konstanz mayor, Horst Eickmeyer, who knew of Lenk’s reputation, said to the artist, “Do what you want—but please don’t put up any naked women.” Lenk promised but worked on the statue in secret. Upon the grand reveal, Imperia was clearly clothed, but it’s what she represented that stirred controversy and intrigue in Konstanz.
To understand the meaning behind Imperia, we must look to the past. In 1409, the Roman Catholic Church found itself with three popes and thus in an era called the “Great Schism.” Following the papal election of 1378, the church split into two factions each of whom supported a different pope— Gregory XII in Rome or Benedict XIII in Avignon. The church tried to right itself in 1409 with another election at the Council of Pisa, but this just resulted in a third pope, John XXII.
Not happy with the schism, Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund pressured Pope John XXIII to summon the Council of Constance in Konstanz, Germany. From 1414-1418, the council worked to choose a new pope and reform the church so that a schism would not happen again.
During the four years of the Council of Constance, Catholic priests and cardinals employed the services of about 700 women sex workers, according to Ulrich von Richenthal who chronicled the council. (Some sources say it was closer to 1,500 women.) Imperia is representative of these sex workers who were paid for their services by the council’s holy men.
Lenk chose the name, “Imperia,” from Honoré de Balzac, a 19th century French novelist who wrote La Bella Imperia (or The Fair Imperia). The satirical fictional piece tells how priests and cardinals of the Council of Constance visited brothels, pointing out one sex worker in particular, Imperia.
Balzac described her as such: “Imperia was the most precious, the most fantastic girl in the world, although she passed for the most dazzling and the beautiful, and the one who best understood the art of bamboozling cardinals and softening the hardiest soldiers and oppressors of the people.”
Imperia was a fictional character, but Lenk found it a fitting name for his statue. After all, she holds the naked Holy Roman Emperor in one hand and Pope Martin V (who was elected in 1417 at the end of the council) in the other, pointing out the irony of this moment in history when holy men did things that the church deemed “unholy.”
At the beginning, the city’s opinions on Lenk’s creation was divided. “The majority was open-minded and found the figure to be suitable and nice. A not so small minority, especially conservatives and devout Catholics, refused to accept it and called for ‘the eyesore’ to be taken down,” said Mostyn.
Although there was a brief “battle of letters to the editor in the local press,” nearly 30 years later, Imperia is now an important and celebrated part of the Konstanz landscape. Her presence undoubtedly sparks conversations around sex work and how the profession has been around for centuries, serving even the highest levels of the Catholic church from time to time. It’s no wonder that she is a favorite stop on tours of the city.
As Mostyn said, “Imperia has become an essential element of the city’s skyline. Most Konstanzers (even those, who originally disapproved of her) carry Imperia in their hearts and nearly every guest is enthralled by her.”