Once the centre of a mighty trading empire that dominated the eastern Mediterranean, the “Queen of the Adriatic’s” population has been dropping for years and has just dipped beneath the psychologically crucial threshold of 60,000.
The calamitous population decline, due to a lack of jobs and the crippling cost of living, has been marked with a mock “funeral”.
A red coffin symbolising the death of “La Serenissima”, as the Venetian republic was known in its independent heyday, was borne down the Grand Canal in a procession of three gondolas.
The casket was then lifted onto dry land and deposited outside the town hall, home to Venice’s governing council, in a lament for the once-bustling lagoon city.
It may be gradually sinking, its crumbling canals and piazzas threatened by an increasing number of high tides, but the more pressing concern is whether there will be any Venetians left to defend it from the encroaching Adriatic.
Venetians fear that they are becoming an endangered species and that their home will end up a vast open-air museum thronged with tourist day-trippers by day, but a virtual ghost town by night.
Sky-high rents and exorbitant property prices, fuelled by wealthy Italians and foreigners seeking a slice of Venetian magic, have fuelled a mass exodus of its inhabitants to nearby towns on the Italian mainland.
Among the organisers of the “funeral” was Matteo Secchi, who said the crushing weight of mass tourism was also squeezing the life out of the city.
Each year, 20 million visitors descend on Venice – a vast increase on 1950, when the figure was one million. Surging through the narrow alleyways and squares, they are snuffing out the very culture that they have come to enjoy.
“People leave because life is becoming impossible. All the normal shops are turning into stores selling souvenirs like Venetian masks and Murano glass. It’s no good for the locals – you can’t eat glass.”
Over the past seven years, the number of historic buildings turned into bed and breakfasts has gone up by more than 1,000 per cent. “There’s a bed and breakfast on virtually every corner and new hotels open every day,” said Mr Secchi. “Venice is the home of a world famous film festival and yet we now only have one cinema! It’s crazy.”
Venice has been so consumed by tourism over the last few decades that there is very little other economic activity left, so job opportunities for anyone who does not want to work in a hotel, as a gondolier or a tour guide are limited.
Tourism may be its lifeblood, but the city desperately needs to diversify. “We need to find new kinds of business,” said Mr Secchi. “Can you believe, the local water transport company bought its newest vaporetto from Greece? Venetians built boats for centuries – why can’t we still build them here?”
Venice’s population has been sliding for years, from 174,000 in 1951 to 70,000 in 1996.
The figure of 60,000 was regarded as the next significant benchmark in the demographic decline. Official figures show the city’s permanent population is now 59,992. A quarter of those residents are over 64 and the city’s registry office has warned that Venice could be devoid of full-time, native-born inhabitants by the year 2030.
The city’s left-wing mayor, former philosophy professor Massimo Cacciari, has played down the importance of the decline. “So what’s new? I’m not sure there’s a difference between 60,000 inhabitants and 59,999,” he said.
But many locals say that they feel under siege from the sheer weight of mass tourism – each day around 55,000 day trippers pour into Venice, almost equal to the city’s permanent population.
Budget flights and cheap package deals have put Venice within reach of more people than ever before. The majority do not stay the night. Many do not even eat in Venice’s over-priced restaurants – they bring sandwiches instead.
But rather than signaling the death knell of a once proud centre of Western civilisation, yesterday’s funeral, organised by the Venessia.com pressure group, was flagged as an opportunity to “restart” the city’s fortunes.
“We have to create a Venice that residents will want to stay in. We want this to be a rebirth,” said Andrea Morelli, a pharmacist who has installed an electronic ticker machine in his pharmacy near the Rialto Bridge to record the daily population drift.
“The problem is that for the last 20 or 30 years the people who run Venice have not tried to foster an economy other than tourism,” said Franco Maschietto, the recently retired head of the Venice Hoteliers’ Association and a businessman whose family has lived in Venice for nearly 400 years.
“We need to attract colleges and universities, government departments and maybe a United Nations organisation like Unesco. We could become the Brussels of the south, or declare ourselves a free port. Banks used to have their headquarters here, but not anymore. When we lost a big Italian insurance company, 1,000 jobs went with it. The council has done nothing to stem the exodus.”
Witnessing the city’s inhabitants flee across the lagoon to the mainland over the last few decades has been painful and poignant, Mr Maschietto said.
“I live this sadness every day. When I close my eyes I can see Venice in the fifties, when we had more than 170,000 people and it was as busy as London. Back then, we didn’t need tourists.”
If Venetians will not, or cannot, stay in the city, then foreigners should be enticed to move in, said Mr Secchi – but permanently, not just flitting in to stay for a few days like the 15,000 people who own holiday apartments.
“I would like to send an invitation to the world – come and live in Venice,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are British or American – if you love Venice, that makes you a Venetian. The death of Venice is not just a problem for Italy, it’s a problem for the whole world.”