Like a child's toy model brutally manhandled, the architectural masterpiece that is Venice has increasingly been the plaything of millions. The damage is so severe that UNESCO has been urgently reassessing the city's world heritage listing, recently granting it a reprieve until 2019.
Mass tourism, a shrinking population driven out by foreign investors, a climate change-affected sinking city and a lack of government will to address the damage wrought by giant cruise ships within the fragile lagoon ecosystem are ravaging Venice.
But the defenders of La Serenissima, active both locally and internationally for decades, are becoming increasingly vocal, many imploring visitors to tread lightly, change habits, be mindful, eat local, stay longer, to love Venice like a local.
One of the greatest capitals of the medieval world is not a utilitarian high-rise city of steel and concrete that depletes the soul.
Its serpentine canals and cobbled alleyways, its carved lintels and partially plastered walls, its ochre and peach tints, colonnaded arcades, clay-fired roofs, lovely wood shutters and wrought iron display a human dimension that we desire.
But we desire too avidly this floating city that has inspired painters from Canaletto to Turner, to Titian to Tintoretto, and produced such architectural masterpieces as Torcello's Cathedral, the church of Santa Maria della Salute, Palazzo Ducale, Saint Mark's and San Giorgio Maggiore.
And in our desire we forget that this fragile place is also people's beloved home. As young Venetians and co-founders of a popular new website, Venezia Autentica, Sebastian Fagarazzi and Valeria Duflot say, "Venice is seen as a dream, as a fiction, as a museum. People do not realise that Venice is a city, the hometown of the Venetians.
"Venetians are very few, Venice lovers are many. If the mainstream starts seeing Venice as a living city, the general approach to Venice could change."
Sebastian and Valeria say that while there are many organisations dedicated to saving Venice's art and monuments, Venezia Autentica is focusing on two different issues – keeping Venetians in business to maintain the character of the city and changing Venice's image from theme park to living city.
Tourism-driven foreign investment and soaring property values are driving Venetians away. In 1951 there were 175,000 residents. At the end of last year there were only 55,000, rendering the city almost unsustainable.
Visitor habits have changed. Sebastian and Valeria point out that until the early 2000s, most visitors stayed a few nights, visiting Venice beyond the landmarks, discovering local life and culture.
In recent years, visitors often come for a day or hour-trip, as part of a cruise – about 30,000 a day.
The effect is a gigantic human wave treading the same main streets connecting Piazzale Roma and the train station with the Rialto Bridge and Saint Mark's Square.
Foreign investors have bought property for tourist purposes, pushing up prices and forcing out local shopkeepers and artisans.
"The way you visit Venice has an impact both on the quality of your experience and on Venice itself," they say. "Chilling, exploring, shopping, eating and drinking where the locals do, can make a huge impact both on the memories you bring home and on the local economy and community."
They are encouraging people "to respect something that matters more than the profit of the few – the health of Venetians, the protection of Venice … the environment".
Up to 30 million people pile into Venice annually, swamping the eight-square-kilometre city. Venezia Autentica believes that if it can change the habits of just 10 per cent of those visitors, the city's quality of life will rally.
Then there are the giant cruise ships that tower over Venice. Like many other groups, Venezia Autentica is pressing for greater controls: Giant ships to be forbidden from navigating along Giudecca Canal, passing within 300 metres of St Mark's, ships should use filters, switch off their motors once docked and use port power instead, switch to a lower-sulphur fuel.
It is concerned that the 96,000-tonne cruise ship limit will increase, as most of the cruise liners now being built are more than 100,000 tonnes.
Jane da Mosto is another activist Venetian refusing to allow her city to die. Just awarded Venice's Osella d'Oro prize for her dedication to saving Venice, Ms da Mosto is co-founder and chief executive of We are here Venice.
She believes tourists should pay to enter the historic city and numbers should be capped. She says large ships (about 96,000 tonnes) don't belong in the lagoon, or near Venice.
As to smaller ships (like Ponant's 10,000-tonners), she adds, "This is okay (depending on overall management of tourism in the city and environmental limits) and I wouldn't be surprised if the company finds it unpleasant having to moor near large monster cruise ships."
There are dozens more equally concerned activist groups. These include Italia Nostra, Europa Nostra, Gruppo 25 Aprile, as well as restoration and heritage conservation organisations like the World Monuments Fund, London-based charity, the Venice in Peril Fund or the US-based Save Venice Inc.
Walk Venice's streets and canals and you will see the "No Grandi Navi" signs hanging from windows and art galleries displaying artists' take on Venice's problems.Even this year's Venice Biennale spreads the message with British artist Philip Colbert's Stop the Madness painting and Italian artist Lorenzo Quinn's Support, the large installation of giant hands reaching from the Grand Canal to prop up the Ca'Sagredo Hotel.
To counter high tides and flooding, Venice is building costly mobile floodgates to temporarily isolate the lagoon from the sea – the Mose project – scheduled for 2018. Other contentious suggestions include dredging to allow the megaships' access, enlarging a channel to the Marittima Cruise Terminal in the heart of historic Venice, building an alternative cruise ship docking facility outside the lagoon, even, bizarrely, relocating ships to Trieste.
But city authorities fear losing jobs and tourism revenue and dither about the fact that large-scale cruise ship tourism has increased by 400 per cent in the past five years. While government fiddles, humble visitors can quietly change their habits to help effect change.
As Jonathan Keates, chairman of Venice in Peril, was quoted as saying in the UK's National Geographic Traveller, "Explore Cannaregio and Santa Croce – areas that still have real shops, real locals. Use your eyes and look at what they need in order to help Venice survive."
Jane da Mosto adds, "The future starts now and if changes are going to be made (infrastructure, economic strategy) this must be within the context of a long-term plan – something Venice is desperately in need of."
Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Venice via Dubai, see emirates.com/au/ www.emirates.com/au/
Small ship Le Lyrial's "Discovery of Dalmatian Shores" 8-day Athens to Venice departs July 21 or August 7, 2018. From $3660 per person double occupancy – book now to save up to 30 per cent. Includes private balcony, all meals, open bar. See au.ponant.com/ or ring 1300 737 178. Note: Le Lyrial's 10,700-tonnage is designed to navigate small ports and narrow waterways.
Alison Stewart was a guest of Ponant and Emirates