Milan, Italy Leonardo da Vinci and his Florentine friends land in Milan

Leonardo da Vinci’s St. John the Baptist, 1513-16
Leonardo da Vinci’s St. John the Baptist, 1513-16

Venue details:
Palazzo Reale, Milan
Piazza del Duomo, 12,
Milano, Italy

Leonardo 1452-1519, Palazzo Reale, Milan, 15 April-19 July

Not since 1939 has Leonardo da Vinci been the subject of such an ambitious exhibition in Italy. That year, as Europe stood on the brink of war, the Italian public was treated to a large exhibition of his work during the Triennale di Milano, which included everything from his oil paintings to functioning designs he developed for machines.

Since then, a number of exhibitions have tackled parts of his work, but never all of it. “The reason is mainly because the works, painted on panels, are so fragile,” says Maria Teresa Fiorio, the co-curator of “Leonardo 1452-1519”, which opens at the Palazzo Reale this month, and which has been timed to coincide with the Milan Expo 2015 (9 May-31 October). “But it’s also to do with how difficult it is for anyone to come to terms with da Vinci’s intellectual and artistic output without falling prey to generalisations or ‘spectacle-exhibitions’ centred around a single work.”

The ambition of this survey will not be lost on viewers, who will see a full range of Leonardo’s work—paintings, drawings, sketches, manuscripts and codexes—contextualised with drawings, sculptures and manuscripts by artists such as his Florentine contemporaries and predecessors Sandro Botticelli, Filippino Lippi, Paolo Uccello, Lorenzo di Credi and the brothers Antonio and Piero del Pollaiolo, as well as the architect Donato Bramante.

The essential works

Borrowing for a show such as this can be difficult, given how many museums will not part with Leonardo’s most famous paintings, either for conservation reasons, to avoid visitor disappointment, or both. While obtaining loans such as the Musée du Louvre’s Mona Lisa, 1503-06, or the Uffizi’s Annunciation, 1472-75, have proved out of the question, other important paintings will be on show in Milan, including St John the Baptist, 1513-16, from the Louvre; St Jerome in the Wilderness, around 1480, from the Vatican Museums; and Lorenzo di Credi’s Madonna and Child with a Pomegranate, 1475/80, from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Around 100 signed drawings by Leonardo will also be on show, including 30 on loan from the UK’s Royal Collection Trust.

Although the exhibition is geared towards a scholarly crowd, the co-curator Pietro Marani says that organisers have made it accessible to wider audiences by “highlighting the links between Leonardo and his contemporaries through the use of immediately effective comparisons”.

Funding an exhibition with so many autograph works—and without public money—has also been an ambitious feat. The show cost €4.5m, with €3.5m coming from the publisher Skira, a long-term supporter of exhibitions for the city of Milan, and the rest from other private sponsors, including Bank of America Merrill Lynch, making it one of the most expensive exhibitions ever organised in Italy. The insurance value of the works reached a staggering €2.5bn.