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No, he pressed, the problems lie elsewhere. The cost of maintaining Venice: "There is not enough money from the state to cover it all—the cleaning of canals, restoration of buildings, raising of foundations. Very expensive.'' The cost of living: "It's three times as costly to live here as in Mogliano, 20 kilometers away. It's affordable only for the rich or elderly who already own houses because they have been passed down. The young? They can't afford it."

Finally, there is tourism. Of that, Cacciari the philosopher said this: "Venice is not a sentimental place of honeymoon. It's a strong, contradictory, overpowering place. It is not a city for tourists. It cannot be reduced to a postcard."

Would you close it to tourists? I asked.

"Yes. I would close Venice—or perhaps, on reflection, a little entrance examination and a little fee." He looked bemused.

Add the little fee to ridiculously high prices. Tourists pay $10 to ride the vaporetto, $13 for a soft drink at Caffè Florian, $40 for a plastic Carnival mask, probably made in China.

Or you can buy a palazzo. "Grand Canal is prime," said Eugenio Scola as we sat in his walnut-paneled real estate office overlooking San Marco. He wore a beautifully tailored black jacket, a crisp white cotton shirt, jeans with an alligator belt, and black loafers with the luster of polished calf. For years, buyers were Americans, British, and other Europeans, Scola explained. "But now we are seeing Russians. Also Chinese."

Among his offerings was a three-bedroom restored apartment on the piano nobile, or main floor, of a small 18th-century palazzo, or palace. "Molto bello," Scola said, pulling out the plans. There was a studio, library, music salon, two living rooms, a small room for the help, and a fine view from three sides. Only nine million euros. If I preferred, there was an entire palazzo—the 60,300-square-foot Palazzo Nani, to be offered with a permit allowing its conversion to another use. "It will probably become a hotel," Scola said. When I asked for something more affordable, I was taken the next day to see a 388-square-foot studio that would give a sardine claustrophobia, but it was only 260,000 euros. Someone would buy it as an investment or pied-à-terre. But probably not a Venetian.

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