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Be careful to watch your back
by Canon Jim Foley
There can be few buildings in Rome that do not boast a plaque on their walls to commemorate somebody who was born or lived or died there. Some are more conspicuous than others and the plaque described below is one of the most inconspicuous. It is attached to the wall of the Palazzo Valdina in the Via dei Prefetti No 17. Find the Pantheon and you are nearly there. The SPQR, proudly emblazoned at the top of the plaque, guarantees that the memorial is authorised by the Senate and the People of Rome. Not every Tom, Dick or Harry is at liberty to attach commemorative plaques wherever they choose. This one was erected to commemorate the period of less than one year during which Samuel Morse, credited with inventing the code that carries his name, was resident there. It is not clear what he was doing in Rome unless it was to pick Guilielmo Marconi’s brains and vent his notorious spleen on the Papacy at close range. The following give the Italian original followed by an English Translation:
S P Q R
QUESTA CASA ABITO’
DAL XX FEBBRAIO MDCCCXXX
AL V GENNAIO MDCCCXXXI
SAMUELE FINLEY BREESE MORSE
INVENTORE DEL TELEGRAFO ELETTROMAGNETICO SCRIVENTE
NATO A CHARLESTOWN IL XXVII APRILE MDCCXCI
MORTO A NEW YORK IL II APRILE MDCCCLXXII
IN THIS HOUSE THERE LIVED
FROM 20 FEBRUARY 1830
TILL 5 JANUARY 1831
SAMUEL FINLEY BREESE MORSE
INVENTOR OF THE ELECTROMAGNETIC TELEGRAPH WRITER
BORN IN CHARLESTOWN ON 27 APRIL 1791
DIED IN NEW YORK 2 APRIL 1872
It caught my eye many years ago for a number of reasons. I found myself as a student living in the Scots College at the corner of the Via Quattro Fontane and the Via Rasella. For ten years I made my way round that corner on the way to the Gregorian University full of good cheer and scholastic philosophy. Two inoffensive little plaques completely escaped my attention during those years. One simply stated that the buildings were in the Rione II (Region II also known as Rione Trevi) of the city of Rome, a practice not far removed from our modern use of post codes.
The other plaque nearby notes that the site was the Property of the Academia Teologica Romana which had been in existence for as long as anyone could remember and was under the patronage of a whole series of Popes, benefactors and theological luminaries.
The property was acquired from the Academia in the middle of the nineteenth century by the Catholic Church in Scotland for the purposes of extending the existing college buildings and erecting the new Scottish National Seminary in the city on that site. This ambitious project was carried through under the eye of a distinguished Italian architect, Luigi Poletti (1792-1869). The façade, although rather forbidding, was the best part of the building.
At this point, however, the apparently inoffensive little plaque took on a new complexion. The prudent and far-seeing members of the Academia had attached an emphyteusis to the property. Less this should appear to be some kind of epidemic let may say a brief word about the term and its implications in so far as I can get my head round them.
In Canon Law, as in Roman and Civil Law, an emphyteusis can be attached to a contract in which an estate is leased, either in perpetuity or for a long term of years, upon the payment of an annual rent or feu, The person who acquires the property does so on the condition that he will keep up with the annual payments of the feu duty and also enhance the property as the opportunity arises. He also enjoys the right to dispose of the estate or pass it to his heirs by descent, and free from any fear of revocation, re-entry, or forfeiture on the part of the original owners, except for default of payment of the rent or gross neglect of the site.
When the College buildings were sold in 1959 to the Banca CARIPLO (an anagram for the more prestigious title of Casa di Risparmio delle Provincie Lombarde!), and we were decanted lock, stock and barrel out into the country and eventually to Via Cassia 481, the emphiteutor appeared at the front door on behalf of the Academia to claim a slice of the action in the form of a percentage of the value of the sale. Our neighbourly plaque had changed its tune. Behind it lay some form of penalty clause in the event of the alienation of the building by the present incumbent. The incumbent at that time, Philip Ignatius Flanagan was less than pleased to meet him and with bad grace parted with an undisclosed sum of money and showed him the door.
If there is a lesson to be learned from this arcane episode it is ‘Caveat emptor’, which, loosely translated, means ‘watch your back’.
After this digression let me return to the more modest purpose in hand and present a very brief account of the plaque in the Via dei Prefetti which moved me to pen this blog.
It is to the memory of Samuel Morse. He could lay claim to have invented what came to be known as the Morse Code and lived in that house for one year. He could also lay claim to being consumed with anti-catholic sentiments and it surprises me that he was not run out of the Eternal City by the seat of his pants sooner than he was.
I end this little divertimento with a prayer for Samuel Finley Breese Morse, composed in the language he invented: