LONDON (Reuters) - Move over George Clooney. Lady Gaga? So yesterday. The new celebrity in town is Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, subject of a major exhibition at London's National Gallery that has generated the hype of a Hollywood blockbuster.
Critics have fallen over themselves to find superlatives to describe "Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan," which gathers nine of only 15 or 16 paintings of the master's paintings known to exist.
Missing are arguably the most famous of all -- the "Mona Lisa" at the Louvre in Paris and "The Last Supper" mural in Milan which cannot be moved anyway.
But the National Gallery is still confident that the collection, including loans from around the world, represents "the most complete display of Leonardo's rare surviving paintings ever held."
Curator Luke Syson, who worked for five years on the exhibition, was close to tears describing it to the first of two press previews on Tuesday to cope with huge media demand.
"People have talked about this as an unprecedented opportunity," he said.
"It is an unprecedented opportunity. It probably won't happen like this again and so it's very moving, the thought that we actually might be able to understand Leonardo better collectively."
He said the show, which runs from November 9-February 5, 2012 and is sponsored by Credit Suisse, was designed to focus on Leonardo the painter, as opposed to scientist, inventor, engineer, mathematician or all-round polymath.
"First and foremost Leonardo was trained as a painter and he thought as a painter even when he was doing other things. For him, sight was the prime sense."
The show was originally inspired by the gallery's restoration of "The Virgin of the Rocks," and, for the first time, the two versions of the same subject belonging to the National and the Louvre hang together.
Also included is a mystery worthy of Dan Brown's bestseller "The Da Vinci Code" -- "Christ as Salvator Mundi" which was only recently attributed to Leonardo and its authenticity is still questioned by some.
Listed by the National Gallery as an original, the painting was sold at Sotheby's in 1958 for 45 pounds, although at the time it was believed to be by one of Leonardo's pupils.
According to ARTnews, the work is now owned by a consortium of dealers, including Robert Simon, a specialist in Old Masters in New York.
Now valued by experts at up to $200 million, Simon told the publication the work "is not on the market."
The National Gallery has collected virtually all of the known Leonardo paintings from Milan, where he was court artist to the city's ruler Ludovico Sforza from around 1482-1499.
Sforza gave Leonardo the time to properly research his craft, helping to turn him into a painter-philosopher who believed art could reveal something higher even than nature.
The only missing work from that period is "The Last Supper" mural, but the National has set aside a large room in its main space to hang an almost contemporary copy by Giampietrino.
The paintings are accompanied by drawings, dozens of which have been loaned by Queen Elizabeth who owns the world's largest collection, and comparable works by Leonardo's contemporaries and students.
The paintings include "Portrait of a Musician" from the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan, "Saint Jerome" from the Vatican, "The Lady With an Ermine" from Krakow, Poland, both "The Belle Ferronniere" and "The Virgin of the Rocks" from the Louvre and "The Madonna Litta" from Russia's Hermitage.
Early reviews of the exhibition have been glowing.
"You should probably be reading this review to the sound of a drum roll," wrote Richard Dorment of the Daily Telegraph in a four-star rating.
"The National Gallery's Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan is the most eagerly awaited exhibition in living memory."
Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato