An exhibition offering as few as five paintings by one of history's great artists might struggle to justify a billing as a fine art "blockbuster". But when the works are by Leonardo da Vinci, whose surviving portfolio extends to just 15 canvases, then normal rules no longer apply.
After more than four years of negotiation, restoration and behind-the-scenes preparation, the National Gallery has announced the largest gathering in a single place of paintings by the great Renaissance master with an exhibition that could be the most popular in its history. Curators at the London gallery have secured "unprecedented" agreements with institutions including the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in St Petersburg for the loan of works by Da Vinci completed in the late 1480s and 1490s, when the artist and polymath was under the patronage of the ruler of Milan.
With five paintings already secured, and negotiations continuing to add another three works to the list, the exhibition, scheduled to open in November next year, will be a world first by uniting so many Leonardos under one roof. Managers are quietly confident that the show in the gallery's Sainsbury Wing of up to eight works by one of the most fascinating and enduringly popular figures in art will be one of the most heavily attended in its history, and could even overtake its previous largest blockbuster, the 2006 Velázquez retrospective, which drew 302,000 visitors. It is hoped that ticket sales and merchandising revenue will recoup the substantial cost – several million pounds – of insuring the works during their stay in London.
Luke Syson, the curator of the exhibition, said: "Da Vinci believed in quality rather than quantity. He sought to produce a very few pictures which he believed could be perfect. There are very few [of his] paintings in existence, which explains why an exhibition of this kind has never been attempted before. Organising it is certainly challenging. The object is to show that Leonardo was first and foremost a painter and what an extraordinary capacity he had to investigate and depict the natural world."
The London exhibition will focus on Da Vinci's period as court painter to Duke Lodovio Sforza, during which time the artist used the novelty of a steady salaried income to explore his pioneering methods of depicting human anatomy and expression, along with his trademark fascination for plants and animals. Alongside the Louvre's haunting La Belle Ferronière portrait, thought to be of his patron's mistress, and two religious works from the Vatican and the Hermitage, will be The Virgin of the Rocks, which was unveiled earlier this month after a painstaking restoration. More than 40 of his preparatory sketches and drawings will also be part of the exhibition.
Art historians have long debated the reasons for the modest size of Da Vinci's surviving oeuvre. Some of his works are thought to have failed the test of time because he liked experimenting with new techniques. The Last Supper, which along with the Mona Lisa is one of the artist's most famous works, deteriorated dramatically in the Milanese convent where it was painted because Da Vinci eschewed the traditional methods of fresco painting, producing a surface liable to mould and flaking.
The artist also had a penchant for procrastination. "He was said to be easily distracted by other projects," said Mr Syson. "But he really believed that his paintings could end up in some ways being perfect. That was both inspirational and a kind of block. Sometimes his ambition seems to have chipped away at his ability to finish a work. He was an artist of great boldness but also self-doubt. That is a side to him that we don't often imagine."
Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan will run from 9 November 2011 to 5 February 2012