The Digital Parthenon

Spaull, Jon. “Greece, Athens, Parthenon, Acropolis (photo).” Bridgeman Education, www-bridgemaneducation-com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/en/asset/3590829/summary. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019.

This is not the Parthenon (Spaull); it is a collection of pixels arranged to create an image of the Parthenon on a computer screen. It was created from digital data extracted via a camera from light reflected off of the Parthenon, stored on a computer, transferred over the internet, and then used by a program to determine the configuration of pixels. The process is complicated, and there are many intermediate steps between the actual Parthenon and the viewing of the photograph. Nevertheless, the resulting image is so clear and so crisp that the distinction is collapsed, and the picture created from this digital data is taken as the immediate image of the actual building. Indeed, for many people digital photographs are their only actual exposure to the building, and yet many such people, despite never having been to Athens, would claim that they have seen the Parthenon. In many ways, the visual distinctions are actually physically insignificant, for light reflected off of a building and light created artificially by pixels are essentially the same once they reach the viewer. The process of creating the digital image is complicated and approximate, but so is nature. Nevertheless, a person who has actually seen the monument may feel that the difference is clear, much as one is unlikely to confuse a photograph of his or her hometown with the actual place. The important distinctions lie not in the fidelity of the image, but rather in the differences in perspective. A photograph is stationary with a fixed perspective and a delineated boundary, while an actual building shifts as the viewer moves and blends continuously into his or her entire view. Furthermore, the sounds, smells, and other sensations besides sight that always accompany a physical location further separate the two. However, much as books are used in the place of oral stories and music recordings are often used in place of live performances, digital images of monuments like the Parthenon may ultimately come to be seen as just as authentic as the actual building and enable new means for the monument to influence culture, for technology now provides the means for this transition.

Carrey, Jacques. The Marquis de Nointel before the City of Athens. 1674, The City of Athens Museum.

While the digital Parthenon is a new phenomenon, the derivative image of the Parthenon is not; paintings of the building existed long before photographs of it did, and in many ways digital photographs are simply a change in quality and quantity, not in kind. Both paintings and photographs create a visual duplication of the subject of interest through an intermediate material, and the photographer with a camera is not so different from an artist with paint and a canvas. There is still human influence in the taking of the photograph in shot location, lighting, and angle. For example, the painting here focuses on the entirety of the Ottoman Acropolis and thus contains very little detail of the actual sculpture, providing instead a holistic view of the building in its proper context (Carrey). Careful sketches in contrast could provide a representation of the actual metopes and frieze in detail. The camera, with its limited resolution and scope, must make similar choices in what it represents. Thus, both paintings and photographs currently provide only fragments of information filtered through a biased source. However, these similarities only serve to illustrate just how much more authentic photographs seem to be, for the artistry of a photograph is so nonobvious that it often must be pointed out. One may easily forget that there is a man or woman behind the camera of the first photograph, but virtually no one will forget that an artist made this painting. The camera, which relies on technology to duplicate the shape and arrangement of color in the image, can easily produce far more realistic results than the artist armed only with naturally colored pigments and fallible human skill. Furthermore, even if an artist could make a painting that rivals a photograph, there are still limits on what could be done, for realistic paintings and accurate sketches require mastery of craft and dedication of time. Here, then, the importance of the camera’s ability to perform the tasks of capturing the shape and color of the Parthenon become perhaps even more important, for it greatly reduces the burden placed on the photographer. Thus, the task of creating a realistic collection of images of each part of the Parthenon, fragmented though they might be, becomes a matter of hours rather than days or years, and the internet enables these images to be rapidly and widely dispersed on a scale impossible with paintings.


Image of a Coca-Cola Advertisement. Yalouri, Eleana. The Acropolis: Global Fame. Local Claim. Oxford, Berg, 2001.

In contrast with the above picture, not all digital presentations of the Parthenon strive to present a faithful representation of it. With this realistic but altered image, Coca-Cola renders the Parthenon into an advertisement for its product and thereby distorts it for their own purposes (Yalouri 110). While all photographs are subject to some modification and change, here the influence of the intermediate material and the creator of it take on greater precedence, for the purpose is not merely a faithful reproduction of the building. It is easy to disparage this as simply a commercially driven act with little other merit, but it inadvertently raises an interesting question: to what extent can photographs of the Parthenon be intentionally distorted before they lose their identity? Evoking the question of what does and does not qualify as art, this ad asks what does and does not qualify as an authentic image of a building. If it is too far removed from the original monument after the conversion, then such images are essentially no different from paintings or other such modified representations. However, if it can still be identified as essentially of the same nature as the digitally represented Parthenon, then it represents a blurring of its domain, and it illustrates that the end result of digital imagery is not necessarily convergence toward a point of perfect duplication, but rather can be the introduction of a physical object into a digital realm where photo-realistic alterations and reinterpretations are possible and even common. Thereby, attempted restorations of the monument, backed by history or not, could become a reality in a purely digital space.

Fragment of a Sarcophagus Lid Showing the Ransoming of Hector’s Body. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Ann Arbor.

The exportation and modification of Athenian imagery for use in a different context again predates the digital age. Even as far back as the Roman Empire, imagery was taken from Athens and adapted to Roman purposes. Both the medium of sculpture and the imagery of the death of Hector for this Roman sarcophagus are taken from Greece, bringing the images out of Athens for the personal aggrandization of the deceased individual and for the appreciation of his fellow Romans (Fragment of a Sarcophagus Lid). Reference, allusion, replication, and adaptation have always been an important part of art and society, and they have already spread what would otherwise have been singular and localized works across the world and throughout culture. Furthermore, the Parthenon itself has been reinterpreted and adapted before by the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Turks, duplicated in Nashville, and used as inspiration for other buildings such as the Walhalla. Thus, rather than rendering a static physical Parthenon dynamic, we see that the digital Parthenon has just perpetuated the dynamic nature of the building. However, the process has henceforth always required possession of the building and subsequent hard work on top of it or a substantial amount of dedication to creating a new monument. The digital Parthenon, however, is available to all with an internet connection, and modification can be done without any physical work, enabling the monument to enter the realm of common modification rather than requiring extensive funding. Furthermore, as a photograph is still ultimately different in nature than a building, it is less susceptible to attacks on authenticity that buildings perceived as imitations, like the Parthenon in Nashville, are subject to.


Image from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Ryan, Jon. “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: (Re)building Athens.” IGN. Ziff Davis, 15 Aug. 2018, www.ign.com/articles/2018/08/15/assassins-creed-odyssey-athens. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019.

While photographs provide a realistic but static image of the Parthenon, another modern technology, the video game, creates instead a dynamic but clearly replicated simulation of the monument. The player can move around the building and see it from different perspectives in a continuous manner. Indeed, in some ways it is viewable from even more perspectives than the actual building. While the Parthenon in Athens is a protected ruin, a restored and completely accessible version is available for close observation in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. As there are multiple copies of the game, it is inherently at less risk of destruction or decay than the physical building, of which there is only one, so access to the game is not restricted by anything other than the cost. Furthermore, while more expensive than a photograph, the game is still portable and can be purchased and experienced by people with access to modern technology across the world rather than being rooted to a particular location. In addition, featuring a coat of paint, restored with both the Parthenon Marbles and marbles that were destroyed in the course of history, and also adorned with statues, banners, and plants, the Parthenon of this game is actually somewhat less fractured than the ruins in Athens (Image from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey). Of course, the game developers have not answered questions that have puzzled archaeologists and historians for decades; this is merely a possible representation of what the Parthenon could have been like, and indeed it may be demonstrably inaccurate. In addition, while it resembles the completed Parthenon from afar, there are visible limitations. The marbles do not have the clarity of the physical object, and just as with photographs the image on the screen still does not have the presence and scope of an actual building. Nevertheless, in comparison with photographs, it successfully introduces the possibility of perspective, albeit at the cost of detail. Thus, it provides another important part of the whole physical Parthenon that is as of yet still fragmented and incomplete in the digital realm, and it provides perhaps the most interesting potential for a future where representations of monuments, whether realistic or augmented as in this game, can be experienced at home in a way comparable to the actual location.

Works Cited

Carrey, Jacques. The Marquis de Nointel before the City of Athens. 1674, The City of Athens Museum.

Fragment of a Sarcophagus Lid Showing the Ransoming of Hector’s Body. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, Ann Arbor.

Image from Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Ryan, Jon. “Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: (Re)building Athens.” IGN. Ziff Davis, 15 Aug. 2018, www.ign.com/articles/2018/08/15/assassins-creed-odyssey-athens. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019.

Spaull, Jon. “Greece, Athens, Parthenon, Acropolis (photo).” Bridgeman Education, www-bridgemaneducation-com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/en/asset/3590829/summary. Accessed 30 Apr. 2019.

Yalouri, Eleana. The Acropolis: Global Fame. Local Claim. Oxford, Berg, 2001.