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~ Posted by Lucy Farmer, January 11th 2012

There are only four weeks left to see the Leonardos at London’s National Gallery, one of the exhibitions of the decade. You can still get in if you queue; probably for three hours before it opens at 10am (bring a folding chair and a torch). If you do get in, here are some tips.

Lower your expectations
Not of the quality, but the quantity. Leonardo was slow: only 18 paintings survive, and you are about to see seven that are finished and two that aren’t. And these don’t include the “Mona Lisa”. Watch the 20-minute film beforehand. It tells how Leonardo left Florence for Milan when he was 30 to become court painter to the duke, Ludovico Sforza in 1482. The work he did over the next two decades is on show here. As well as the paintings you’ll also see more than 50 drawings (quite a few of which belong to the Queen).

Chill out
If you’ve queued for three hours, you may feel obliged to have a Big Experience. But the exhibition takes up six rooms in the Sainsbury Wing and also the Sunley Room, and it’s a slow-burner. You’ll want to move between drawings and paintings. That said, “Lady with an Ermine” in Room 2 delivered the wow-factor for me. Pick up the booklet on the way in and you won’t have to push to the front to learn about what you’re looking at.

Take something to read 

There are two versions of “The Virgin of the Rocks”—they hang at opposite ends of Room 4 like goal posts. It’s very probable that these two paintings have never been in the same room before and Leonardo never saw them together. This is the halfway point of the exhibition, so you can sit on a bench in the middle and play spot-the-difference. For help, print out T.J. Clark’s forensic essay which compares the two.

Pay attention to pupils 
The works by painters who studied under Leonardo make the master look good. In Room 1, Leonardo’s “The Musician” (above) hangs next to Boltraffio’s “Portrait of a Young Man”. In Leonardo’s, the musician’s lips look like lips; in Boltraffio’s, they look like they’ve been botoxed.

Find beauty in ugliness
Look at Leonardo’s studies of gnarled faces, hooded eyes and pointed noses, and then look at Judas in “The Last Supper”. The original couldn’t be transported to London because it’s painted on a wall in Milan; it’s tempera on dry plaster and has deteriorated badly. But an assistant of Leonardo’s, Giampietrino, painted a life-size replica, which is on show here.

Remember you can see some again 

Two major works—London’s “The Virgin of the Rocks” and “The Burlington House Cartoon”—are on permanent display at the National Gallery. The Royal Collection has 600 Leonardos, a changing selection of them are on display at Windsor Castle. And an exhibition of his anatomical drawings opens at Buckingham Palace in May.

Take your mum
I went with mine and we spent two and a half hours going round. You need a companion with patience, and one that might buy you a cup of tea and a scone in the café afterwards.

Lucy Farmer is submissions editor of Intelligent Life

Picture credit: © National Gallery