I head-canon Da Vinci’s Demons’ Giralomo Riario as somewhere on the asexual spectrum. Not necessarily completely asexual but possibly grey-asexual or demi-sexual, maybe with some sexual attraction to all genders; I also think he could be biromantic and/or demiromantic.
This identity is complicated in canon by his internalised homophobia that doesn’t let him easily acknowledge any hint of gay or bisexual orientation.
Riario has two female love interests in canon and subtextual attraction to one man (Leonardo da Vinci, often referred to as Leo as I will do in this meta) and I’ll look at each of these relationships in turn. In fanfiction, Riario/Leo is the most popular ship, unsurprising given their onscreen opposites attract, antagonist/protagonist dynamic.
It’s interesting that Riario always seems to need others (women, even canonically bisexual Leonardo didn’t get an actual male love interest) to make a romantic advance before he then responds as he thinks he is expected to. He doesn’t seem proactive about romantic or sexual overtures, certainly with females, and I think that is telling.
For example, Zita pretty much has to seduce him before he gives in. She first demonstrates her intellect and then asks what would please Riario. He immediately realises she means sex and responds that the Bible counsels against indulging oneself. Zita counters that the men of the Bible took their pleasure. She tells him the tale of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (Abyssinia, Zita’s homeland) and how finally the queen gave herself willingly to Solomon.
As Zita undresses herself she adds that the queen fell in love with Solomon and so converted her people to Christianity; she is using religion to seduce papal enforcer Riario. He says that story isn’t in the Bible; Zita says not everything is. Riario finally removes his shirt and he kisses her, lifts her; she wraps her legs around his waist and they make love. What “true man” isn’t supposed to have sex with a woman who offers herself so completely to him? Yet had Zita not seduced Riario with her words and by showing her willingness by undressing I do not believe he would ever have taken her to his bed. It would never have occurred to him.
Zita saw something good in Riario to his amazement (“No one looks at me and sees grace”) and this touches him as much or more than their sexual encounter. He bestows a kiss to her hand in a loving and intimate gesture.
I think that Riario did care deeply for Zita and her death affected him more than the writers ever acknowledged by the time season three came along. But that doesn’t mean he truly desired her physically. An asexual can have sex for many purposes, including trying to please a partner. Or he might be grey-asexual and have got to the point where he felt a desire to have sex with Zita, though she still needed to make the first overtures.
Their relationship is also complicated by the master/servant dynamic- the white soldier and the black slave – and the power imbalance involved, as well as the social mores surrounding such a match. She was no queen seducing a king as in her story. Riario did free her, but she chose to go with him, risking (and ultimately sacrificing) everything. How much of that was gratitude and how much true love on her part? How much did Riario feel responsible for her, given he was the one to teach her during those early off-screen years, and then to take her with him on the perilous voyage? There are a lot of things to consider with this dynamic.
Then we have Laura Cerata, who again is the one to seduce Riario. They are more equal in status, though she is older than him – there’s a weird “mother figure” angle the writers pursued where Laura loves Riario “as your own mother did” which is an odd vibe to introduce to a relationship we’re supposed to see as sexually charged.
He’s also fighting his Labyrinth conditioning at this point, so his motives are complex, but again we do not see him chase after her. He’s capable of flirting, as the scene in the carriage shows.
Gifs posted at leonardo-artista, here
Laura suggests he’s humouring her and he retorts “How dare you accuse me, Signora, of such a peaceable disposition” but as you can see from her smile in that second gif, his delivery of the line is light-hearted, arguably flirtatious. He doesn’t behave this way with other people; his barbs towards Leo, for example, are more straight-forward, a different sort of flirtation.
Yet flirting is not necessarily about sex (see for example this article, Why Do We Flirt? It’s not always about sex. by Sean M Horan).
Flirting could show a romantic attraction but being romantic towards someone is not necessarily the same as being sexually attracted to them. This article looks at the differences between various types of attraction and this image made by queerascat gives a visual representation:
Notice how she kisses him first on the balcony. Riario only returns the kiss. Or at least he doesn’t pull away and moves his hand to rest Laura’s waist. Where he made the first physical contact with Zita, here Laura takes the lead.
Gifs by gravitywon, posted here
He knows how he is supposed to respond to a woman kissing him. It meets his need to be seen as straight by society, it fits with his desire to do the Labyrinth’s bidding to act “normal” but it is not necessarily borne out of true sexual attraction. We later see Laura wandering around the forest in her nightclothes looking for Riario and I think we are supposed to assume they were having sex in her tent the night before – however there is no confirmation for this.
He tells Laura he doesn’t deserve her and claims some of his actions are to protect her, but he could be distancing himself by using these excuses. How often does someone, (especially a woman), try to discourage a would-be paramour by giving reasons they can’t/shouldn’t be together instead of feeling able to just say “no”? Riario’s chivalry towards women would make it difficult for him to outright refuse Laura by saying he didn’t desire her – and again, a refusal like that could lead to rumours of him being sexually “deviant”.
She also keeps telling him how he’s not a murderer because she couldn’t love a monster, etc, but Riario never seems moved by her declarations. He seemed far more touched by Zita’s declarations of goodness than Laura’s. How much of that is due to his killing of Zita, how much due to the Labyrinth conditioning, and how much it speaks to his desire or lack thereof for Laura is open to debate. Perhaps what Riario needs is for someone who can accept who he is, good and bad, and love him anyway, rather than ignoring his past deeds.
Contrast Riario and Laura’s interactions with the Riario and Leo interactions – the long, affectionate looks Riario bestows upon Leo in season three in particular.
gif by sophievondemon posted here
gif by padfootwantsatummrub posted here
gif by padfootwantsatummrub posted here
Gif by rossbarton, posted here
screencap by blake-ritson-love posted here
image I edited from a screencap by the Facebook Blake Ritson fanpage (album now deleted)
Riario has always admired Leo’s genius. In season three he refers to Leo as “Italy’s most ingenious mind”. He worries that the Labyrinth conditioning could harm him and when his mentor says “You fear for Leonardo”, Riario cannot deny it, expressing himself in terms of concern for Leo’s intellect; “He has a unique mind.”
Riario could be sapiosexual but he could also be repressing romantic/sexual feelings for Leo because sodomy is punishable by death during this time period. Praise from Leo, being in Leo’s presence, seems to bring out the best in Riario. They are neither equals in status as the Riario/Laura relationship is, or as imbalanced as Zita/Riario. They are, as the show states frequently in the promotional materials, two sides of the same coin, their differences complementing each other. They can learn from each other, Leo to accept that actions have consequences, Riario to embrace risk taking.
Sinner!Riario, the identity brought out by the Labyrinth’s brainswashing, acknowledges true!Riario’s ability to develop feelings, inappropriate ones. “He admires you, you know,” he tells Leo and, “Your help is to blame for all this. You infected him with your enlightened ideas and introduced him to guilt, shame, remorse. Riddled him with confusion.”
On one level the Sinner is saying that Leo has made Riario reconsider his allegiances and actions undertaken in service to the false Pope. On another, however, Leo’s enlightened ideas include sexuality that is not limited to one gender, and it could be read here that Riario is feeling guilt because he scarcely dares admit it but he does feel attraction to men (Leo) and possibly remorse that he cannot bring himself to act on those feelings, too conditioned into homophobia by his upbringing – or remorse for those he’s punished in the past for sodomy.
Remember also that little smile when Francesco Pazzi was ranting to the Pope about Florence being a sanctuary for sodomites? As if Riario is reminded of Leo (who in one episode is tried for sodomy). We cut to Riario purely for his reaction in that scene.
Demiromanticism and demisexuality rely on emotional bonds being formed before romantic or sexual feelings develop (there’s a good analogy here). Riario becomes more interested in Leo as time goes on, and he’s had time to get to know Zita before the sex scene on their voyage, adding weight to this possibility.
You rarely see asexual characters onscreen and demi-sexuality representation is even rarer, but a slow-burn where romantic and/or sexual feelings develop gradually (as opposed to the oft-seen “sizzling chemistry but they’re kept apart for plot reasons to heighten tension” trope, aka unresolved sexual tension (UST)) could be read as an example of this.
Tom Riley talking to Den of Geek describes the Riario/Leo relationship as “They started out being uneasy enemies. Now they’re uneasy friends.”
I’d say the relationship between Riario and Leo as they move from uneasy enemies to uneasy allies to undeniably friends can be read as allowing romantic and/or sexual feelings to flourish only after Riario feels a friendship with and trust in Leo.
Riario’s emotional “After all we’d been through, I could not watch you die” – referring to him disobeying the Labyrinth previously to save Leo (though he couldn’t defy the Sinner to save Laura without Leo’s encouragement) shows how much he cares on some level for Leo.
And Leo’s teary follow-up “Well then the Riario I know is still in there” speaks volumes about how far he’s come, from almost blowing Riario up in the first season to risking everything to try and heal him from the side effects of the Labyrinth brainwashing in season three.
Let’s not forget that previous to this Riario was forced to kill Zita, to save the rest of the group in theory, but first and foremost it was to gain the antidote to save Leo’s life. They keep making choices to protect each other, regardless of other motivations or indeed reasons they should not do so.
Leo, desperate to free Riario from the Sinner and restore his mind, admits that “I need him” and only after amends “The – Crusade needs him.” Bisexual Leo is never allowed to outright declare love for a man; he’ll be in deceitful Lucrezia’s arms again shortly. But it’s difficult not to read that first declaration as being the more urgent and truthful one.
Riario cares for Leo then. Still, he may not desire him sexually. This does not preclude him having romantic feelings for Leo.
Biromanticism is an orientation in which people experience romantic feelings for both/all genders (pan-romantic is sometimes preferred) but they may still be on the asexual spectrum, be heterosexual, or be gay/lesbian when it comes to sexual orientation.
It’s possible that Riario could have romantic feelings for Zita and Laura but not sexual desire; or he could have romantic feelings for Leo but not experience sexual attraction. This could explain why and where he draws the line when it comes to expressing his emotions or demonstrating physical affection. I’ve not yet seen this explored in fanfic; Riario is usually straight, gay, gay-for-Leo, or maybe occasionally bisexual, but his romantic orientation always matches his sexuality.
In conclusion, I do not read Riario as exclusively heteromantic and heterosexual and I do read him as being somewhere on the asexual spectrum; demi-romantic and/or grey asexual, along with being biromantic and possibly bisexual.
I’ll finish by rec’ing Under Boughs of Sunlight, a Leo/Riario fic that is unashamedly asexual friendly and tagged as such. The author, EmeraldSoul was open to further discussion and they shared their thoughts about asexual!Riario and his relationships with me and helped me clarify my ideas on the subject. With their encouragement I decided to write this meta I’d long been planning on and to complete and post it as part of Asexual Awareness Week 2016.