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Boots are fine for water, but useless against the flood that causes more hand-wringing than any lagoon spillover: the flood of tourism. Number of Venetian residents in 2007: 60,000. Number of visitors in 2007: 21 million.

In May 2008, for example, on a holiday week­end, 80,000 tourists descended on the city like locusts on the fields of Egypt. Public lots in Mestre, a mainland part of the municipality where people park and take the bus or train to the historic center, filled and were closed. Those who managed to get to Venice surged through the streets like schools of bluefish, snapping up pizza and gelato, leaving paper and plastic bottles in their wake.

La Serenissima ("the most serene one"), as Venice is known, is anything but. The world steps into the exquisitely carved font of the city, guidebook in hand, fantasies packed along with toothbrush and sturdy shoes. Splash! Out spill the Venetians. Tourism isn't the only reason for the accelerating exodus, but one question hovers like a haze: Who will be the last Venetian left?

"Venice is such a lovely city," said the director of a cultural foundation. From his window you could look across the San Marco Basin—with its unending flotilla of speedboats, gondolas, and water-buses called vaporetti—and beyond to the Piazza San Marco, epicenter of Venetian tourism. "Really, it is a huge theater. If you have the money, you can rent an apartment in a 17th-century palazzo with servants and pretend you are an aristocrat."

Please take your seats. In this play, Venice assumes a dual role. There is Venice the city where people live and Venice the city tourists visit. Lighting, sets, and costumes are so beautiful the heart aches, but the plot is full of confusion, the ending uncertain. One thing is certain: Everyone is madly in love with the title character.

"Beauty is difficult," Mayor Cacciari said, sounding as if he were addressing a graduate seminar in aesthetics rather than answering a question about municipal policy. He quoted Ezra Pound (the American poet, buried in Venice) quoting Aubrey Beardsley's line to William Butler Yeats, a kind of literary game of telephone—but then indirection is as Venetian as the curves of the Grand Canal.

Cacciari, whose reputation for arrogance rivals his reputation for eloquence, seemed to be in a mood as black as his hair and luxuriant beard. (Not a streak of gray on his 63-year-old head. "Does he dye his hair?" I asked a press officer. "No. He is very proud of that," she answered.) The day before, a torrential downpour had flooded Mestre. Rain caused the flood, not acqua alta, Cacciari said, sitting in his office. "MOSE [the flood barriers under construction; see our interactive] wouldn't have helped. High tide is not a problem for me. It's a problem for you foreigners." End of discussion on flooding.

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