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Meet Leonardo's minor Mona

AFTER years of resting undisturbed in a New Jersey bank vault, a painting thought to be a younger version of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is for sale. The Nun (as the canvas is titled) depicts the same 'Lisa' as portrayed in the version hanging in the Louvre, only 10 years younger.

'There has been speculation as to its authenticity throughout the century,' says its owner, Roger Vernon, a former mayor of Madison, New Jersey. 'In the Forties it was confirmed as a genuine da Vinci by an expert, but that was by no means the last word on the matter.'

The painting, dated 1501, fell into the hands of the Vernon family in the late 18th century, when William Henry Vernon visited the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. 'He returned laden with Raphaels, Van Dykes - all sorts,' says his descendent. 'There was also this one finished Leonardo, which has remained in the family ever since - only occasionally going on display, owing to the expense of insurance.'

Now, it seems, interest in the picture is reviving, following a seminar on its history given by its owner last week. 'I expected a handful of locals,' he says. 'I was amazed by the size of the crowd and have decided that, should someone offer the right price, I would consider selling it. Quite what that price would be I've no idea, as it's never been valued.'

Two facets of the painting strengthen its claims of authenticity. Da Vinci often painted his subjects twice, but, more significantly, the painting owned by Vernon shows two columns on either side of a window in the background, as did the painting in the Louvre. The columns in that painting were trimmed to fit the painting into the frame. 'How would an imitator know of their existence?' Vernon asks. If he sells it, I'll let you know.

AS PART of the Scottish revolution to improve the image of the symbol 'X' - teachers consider it negative - the Scottish Vocational Education Council is asking tutors to promote the symbol by marking correct answers with an 'X' and incorrect ones with an 'O'. It may take some getting used to, says one teacher, Ron Gunstone. 'After a lifetime of receiving and giving ticks and crosses, I am now utterly confused when I have to report on my pupil's progress,' he tells me.

Poetic plight ONE POET who is not particularly sympathetic to the Poetry Society's financial plight - it looks set to lose most of its grant from the Arts Council - is the Saudi Arabian ambassador to London, Dr Ghazi Algosaibi, who has been writing verse since the age of 13.

He thinks that nurturing a poet has nothing to do with grants, and everything to do with a God-given gift, while he also thinks that poets would get on much better if they kept themselves to themselves.

Sipping Turkish coffee in his office yesterday, he told me that his 'idea of hell' was to spend time with other poets, most of whom were 'arrogant, stuffed shirts and difficult to live with'. Strong stuff from (judging by his poetry) a gentle and romantic soul, who writes such lines as: 'I sing a happy song/happier than the sunrise/on another shore', or 'It was pouring;/rain like the copious tears/of some legendary woman/grieving a lost love.'

Discussing such lines, the ambassador warned me that his verse suffered in translation from the Arabic (even when translated by himself). There is certainly scope for misinterpretation - there are up to 30 Arabic words for love, and the same number for cloud - and it is possible to read the same lines in different translations without realising they come from the same poem. I did so with one of Dr Algosaibi's most popular poems, about the Sahara, which did not surprise him.

Knowing that I should really be asking the ambassador about Saudi donations to the Conservative Party, I asked him whether he discussed his poetry with that other literary diplomat/politician, Douglas Hurd. It was as close as I got, because the diplomat's guard was immediately up. It was much more fun talking about the poetry, in any case.

FOR THOSE Bar students who may not have realised why I reminded them yesterday about their exam results being due in nine, now eight, days' time, and why this might be a cause for concern, may I suggest they check in their diaries to find the exact day and number of the week. If, on the other hand, you are superstitious, don't.


5 August 1978 Philip Toynbee writes in his journal: 'A splendid programme on Chichester yesterday evening by Alec Clifton-Taylor. All that geological, archaeological and architectural knowledge combining to reveal the town in its fascinating depth. Whereas I'm lucky if I see even the surface, so much does seeing depend on understanding. What a lot of time I've wasted which I might have spent acquiring this kind of knowledge] Those thousands of hours devoted to reading newspapers and agitating myself with issues over which I never had the least control. This was seldom due to any heartfelt concern for human suffering: I'm quite sure that I've read the papers, daily and weekly, far more in anger than in pity. (Kept awake at nights for weeks on end in 1956/7 by my bilious rage against Eden, Selwyn Lloyd, etc.)'