Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at Palazzo Reale, Milan

If you’re hoping to see the Mona Lisa or the Virgin of the Rocks, you’ll be disappointed, but there are a lot of good reasons why you shouldn’t miss this show. As there are not many Leonardo paintings anyway – about 15 – but lots of drawings, the organisers gave the exhibition the theme of “Drawing as the foundation,” and have presented a superb series of drawings (many of which lent by Queen Elizabeth II) which include familiar compositions such as the Vitruvian Man from the Accademia, Venice, the 1473 landscape drawing from the Uffizi in Florence, the Lily drawing from the Queen’s collection in Windsor Castle, and many other less familiar pieces. The studies of drapery on grey-tinted canvas with white highlights are pure poetry, and a thousand times better than what his contemporaries were doing, as shown by similar works by other artists included alongside.

Both the drawings and the handful of Leonardo paintings – St. Jerome, Portrait of a Musician, La belle ferronnière, La scapigliata, St. John the Baptist – reveal this extraordinary difference, and a couple of paintings of far inferior technique optimistically labelled “Leonardo da Vinci?” can only invite the answer “You must be joking?” But at the end, it’s the drawings that steal the show. You can only marvel at the incredible, meticulous precision of pen and ink drawings of female figures in flowing draperies in the space of just 3 or 4 centimetres, the broad gestures of his rough compositional sketches, and the confident touch of drawings such as the Vitruvian man, in ink, without an error or correction. Most of the drawings are not alone on the sheet, but are accompanied by a few sums, lots of notes in his mirror-image handwriting, and perhaps some other sketches of a machine or an optics theorem. After a few rooms you begin to imagine the man working at a table in a room in Milan’s Castle, forever short of fresh paper and always just grabbing the first drawing he could find to sketch out what he had in mind at that moment, in a corner of the sheet, or on the back.

And at the end of the show, you feel that you know him a little better. There are explanatory panels in English and Italian in every room explaining the theme of each part of the exhibition. There are probably audio guides as well. Some people find them useful. My advice would be to read the panels and then let Leonardo talk to you through his work. If you’re in Milan for the Furniture Show or EXPO, don’t miss this show. It runs from 16 April to 19 July 2015, open Monday 2.30-7.30pm, Tuesday-Sunday 9.30am-7.30pm, open until 10.30pm on Thursdays and Saturdays. €11. Book online at vivaticket.