The splendour of Da Vinci, but only for the select few

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The National Gallery has taken the unprecedented step of limiting visitor numbers to its forthcoming exhibition Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan, which opens in November.

The gallery is set to admit just under a quarter fewer visitors into the exhibition than it has capacity for. The step comes after a growing number of art-lovers complained of overcrowding at the capital's high-profile blockbuster exhibitions. In January, people left Tate Modern's Gauguin: Maker of Myth exhibition moaning about "gallery rage", provoked by too many visitors trying to catch a glimpse of rare works.

"Essentially, we felt very strongly that the fewer people who will see the exhibition will have a better experience," said the exhibition's curator Luke Syson. "It's about having time to be contemplative. It will be crowded, but it won't be overcrowded. We felt that although there was a sacrifice involved, these pictures are unlikely to be seen together again."

The National Gallery's health and safety rules specify that the institution can sell 230 tickets to customers every half-hour. When the Leonardo show exhibition opens in November, the gallery will limit its entrance numbers to 180 over the same time period, 50 less than normal, potentially losing it thousands of pounds in revenue.

The Leonardo show will bring together seven of Leonardo's greatest works, all completed during the artist's time working as a Milanese court painter in the 1480s and 1490s. For the first time, the Louvre has loaned La Belle Ferronnière, a portrait of the mistress of Leonardo's Milanese patron, Ludovico Maria Sforza, il Moro ("the Moor"), to Britain. Another highlight is Leonardo's portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, depicting another of Sforza's mistresses, which has been loaned by the Czartoryski Museum in Krakow. Many critics regard that work as Leonardo's finest.

These pieces will go on display alongside 50 of the artist's drawings, including those which relate to his most famous masterpiece, The Last Supper. The Royal Academy has loaned a copy of The Last Supper to the exhibition, as the original covers an end wall at Milanese monastery Santa Maria delle Grazie and thus cannot be moved.

"[The exhibition] will be extremely popular," added National Gallery director Nicholas Penny. "For many exhibitions you wonder how you can persuade people of the artist's merit. With Leonardo da Vinci, you don't need to do that. People should plan their visit properly if they want to see the exhibition."

Advance bookings for the show open today. Sky Arts will broadcast a number of interviews live from the exhibition's private view, the night before the show opens to the public.

The Virgin Of The Rocks (1495-1508)

Depicts the Madonna, baby Jesus, John the Baptist and the angel Gabriel. It was originally painted by Leonardo for the chapel in a small Milanese church. The work has been in the National Gallery's collection since 1880 and was recently restored.

A Rocky Ravine (1475-1480)

Leonardo, ever the artist-scientist, carefully recorded a type of rock formation caused by the erosion of sandstone into tall jagged pillars, which are found in the Arno valley, south-east of Florence. Owned by the Royal Collection.

The Lady With An Ermine (1489-1490)

Depicts Ludovico Maria Sforza's most famous mistress, Cecilia Gallerani, and will be loaned from Cracow's Czartoryski Foundation. Employing oil when it was still relatively young as substance with which to paint, Leonardo shows Cecilia holding a white ermine. It is believed to be a pun on her surname.

Portrait Of A Musician (1490)

Usually on display at Milan's Biblioteca Ambrosiana library, the subject is believed to be Franchino Gaffurio, an Italian musical theorist and composer who worked in Milan Cathedral during the late 15th-century. It is the artist's only known portrait of a man.

Saint Jerome (1488-1490)

The Pinacoteca art gallery in Vatican City will loan this piece showing the titular saint, believed to have lived in a corner of the Ancient Roman empire corresponding to the Balkans. It shows him living the life of a hermit while on a retreat in the Syrian desert.

La Belle Ferronniére (1490-1496)

Also known as the Portrait of a Lady from the Court of Milan, experts believe the subject is Lucrezia Crivelli, a mistress of Ludovico Maria Sforza, Leonardo's patron in Milan. Currently on display in the Louvre.

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