The first exhibition to examine Leonardo Da Vinci’s ambitions as a painter above his work as an inventor, scientist or draughtsman is a staggering show that brings together nearly every surviving picture from his time spent as a painter working for Milan’s ruler Ludovico Maria Sforza in the 1480s and 1490s. On show at London’s National Gallery, ‘Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ includes highlights such as both his versions of ‘Virgin on the Rocks’ and the important portrait ‘The Lady with an Ermine’. Such is the value of the works on show that the British government had to intervene to guarantee the required insurance of a reported £1.5 billion.

The texts that accompany the Leonardo exhibition note that, “Milan was the making of the him”. Indeed, it was here that his iconic depiction of ‘The Last Supper’ was executed and which is represented in London by a full-scale copy by his pupil Giampietrino. For the connoisseur, the exhibition shows how Leonardo revolutionized portraiture with just three works and reveals the evolution of his paintings to focus on the human anatomy, soul and emotions. But ‘Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’ is not only for the experts – as the most complete display of the Renaissance master’s surviving paintings ever shown, it is staggering by anyone’s standards.

‘Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan’, runs until February 5, 2012.

Booking tickets is essential as the exhibition is tipped to be the most visited in the history of the National Gallery.

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The almost uncannily perfect wall-painting of 'The Last Supper' is represented in the exhibition by a near contemporary, full-scale copy by his pupil Giampietrino (1500–1550), lent by the Royal Academy.


Often considered one of Leonardo’s greatest masterpieces, 'The Lady with an Ermine' is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, painted in 1488–90, and has been acclaimed as the first truly modern portrait. The sitter’s twisting pose and nuanced expression convey her inner life, mind, soul – and what we would now call psychology. Cecilia was renowned for her beauty, wit, scholarship, and poetry. Still in her teens in 1489 when she became Ludovico’s mistress, the painting of her portrait allowed Leonardo to demonstrate how a painter could capture a beauty that time would destroy. He portrayed Cecilia holding a white ermine, an enigmatic feature that has multiple meanings. It may be a visual pun on her surname since the Greek for ermine or weasel is 'galay'. It could also stand for her lover, Ludovico Sforza, since he had been awarded the order of the ermine by the King of Naples and was known as ‘l’Ermellino’ as a result. The ermine was also written about by Leonardo as a traditional symbol of purity and honour.


Leonardo, a musician himself, worked closely with other musicians, designing musical instruments and devising settings for courtly entertainments. It was during this time that he painted his only portrait of a man – 'The Portrait of a Musician'.

More than 50 drawings relating to the paintings will be exhibited for the first time. Highlights include 33 sketches and studies from the Royal Collection. The many Leonardo drawings owned by Her Majesty the Queen were probably purchased during the reign of Charles II.


The version of ‘Virgin of the Rocks’ at the Louvre, which is on show in to London, was the first of the two compositions to be painted. Worked on between 1483 and 1486, it was the subject of a dispute about payment with the Milan confraternity which commissioned the work. The painting is the product of Leonardo’s intense study of the natural world. No landscape quite like it had ever been painted before. The National Gallery's Virgin of the Rocks was painted for the confraternity as a replacement for the Louvre version, which had probably been sold during the earlier dispute. The work demonstrates a change in Leonardo’s artistic ambitions in the years around 1490. It is a composition of the most artful complexity. Displaying the paintings together provides a unique opportunity, illuminating the painting career of Leonardo as never before.