A dozen gondolas snaked down the Grand Canal on Saturday in a mock funeral procession bemoaning Venice's approach to the dreaded status of living museum, with a population now below 60,000.
While the largely symbolic threshold is considered by some to signal the end of the city's viability, Venetian officials say reports of Venice's demise are premature, and even Saturday's somber funeral ended with a surprise, bright hope for rebirth.
In fact, while native Venetians have been fleeing the expensive lagoon city for cheaper and easier living on the mainland, the population of the historic center was officially 60,025 as of Thursday, up from the 59,992 it had fallen to in recent weeks.
"They will have the funeral in a living village, not yet dead. And it won't die, even if it goes to 59,999," Mara Rumiz, the city official in charge of demographics, said in a telephone interview Friday.
She said the numbers don't take into account the inhabitants of Venice's islands _ including glassmaking Murano and the Lido beach _ nor the many who are not officially registered, including students. Together, they add another 120,000 souls.
But Venice must still resist becoming merely a tourist destination, Rumiz said.
"It is evident that Venice has to safeguard its residents and attract new inhabitants. If not, we risk that Venice becomes only a tourist mecca, and this is a destiny that we don't want," Rumiz said.
While wandering the narrow alleys and waterways of Venice is a tourist's delight, life in Venice is for the hardy and financially resilient.
Housing costs and rents drop to as much as a third in the nearby city of Marghera. And consider the logistics of an everyday errand like grocery shopping. One would likely need a water taxi ride to a supermarket, another to get home with the groceries, and then with few elevators in residential buildings, there is a heavy load to lug upstairs. Historic Venice does not permit the comfort of a car parked outside the door.
Yet as if to echo Rumiz's optimism about Venice's fate, Saturday's mock funeral ended with an unexpected bright look to the future.
The ceremony kicked off with an aquatic procession of gondolas _ led by a pink one carrying a flower-draped coffin _ down the inverted S-shaped canal. The boats docked in front of Ca' Farsetti, the palazzo housing Venice's City Hall, where hundreds of Venetians joined the procession.
But after a black-caped actor read poetry in Venetian dialect bemoaning the problems of life in the lagoon city, the funeral's "pallbearers" smashed open the coffin and pulled out a flag of La Fenice _ phoenix in Italian _ the mythical winged creature that rises from ashes and is a symbol of rebirth.
The significance of the phoenix is particularly acute for Venetians, since their own La Fenice opera house rose from its own ashes and reopened in 2003 after being destroyed by a fire set by electricians in 1996.
After the surprise ending, participants uncorked sparkling wine to toast Venice's rebirth and hope for the future.
Venetians themselves would like to see more money put toward retaining natives, and are critical of such projects as the new Calatrava Bridge over the Grand Canal. Building the bridge, designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, ran well over projected costs while doing little to ease the lives of average Venetians.
"People go to live where you don't have to spend too much," city resident Alberto Gallo said. "Many would like to remain, but they can't."
The city's population declined by a steep 100,000 from the 1950s to the 1980s, making today's fluctuations minimal by comparison.
"In all, fewer people are leaving than those who are arriving," Rumiz said, but "fewer children are being born in respect to the people who die."
"What is changing is the social base of Venice," she said, explaining that most of the people who are leaving are older while those arriving are "more educated and with better skills."
But who is a Venetian, really? Genetically, a National Geographic Study being conducted by experts from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts intend to find out.
They took advantage of Saturday's "funeral" to take saliva swabs to determine where most of the natives of Veneto _ the larger region of which Venice is the capital _ came from, northern Europe or lands around the Caspian Sea.
"It will be an opportunity to find a few Venetians," said Gallo, who is helping to organize the study.
Associated Press Writer Colleen Barry reported from Milan.