Friedrich (Glenn Gould, The Grave of Alice B. Toklas--both 1989; City of Nets, 1986, etc.) now brings his rare historical imagination and narrative gifts to the art and politics, frivolity, eccentricity, and scandal of the Second Empire (1865-85) in Paris during the reign of Napoleon III. Ã‰douard Manet's life is the frame, his art a recurrent motif. As artistic inspiration, artifact, and social symbol, women dominate Friedrich's text. Empress EugÃ‰nie, Berthe Morisot, and ""Olympia""--Manet's model and painting, whose mystery inspired this book--all have one or two chapters devoted to them, with the author building up other histories from them. Along with his perceptive analysis of Manet's paintings, Friedrich relates the story of impressionism and the community of artists Manet inspired: Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Degas, CÃ‰zanne, and Morisot, who married Manet's brother. The world they painted, Friedrich explains, was set to music by Offenbach, his comic operas reflecting the decadence, pomposity, and materialism of the court and of the ambitious Empress and the reprobate Napoleon, whom she bullied into an ill-fated war against the Prussians. Defeated in that war, the besieged citizens of Paris were reduced to eating zoo animals and rats, from recipes published by Hugo. Such fatally ambitious women as the Empress, Friedrich tells us, were also depicted by Flaubert in the provincial decadence of Emma Bovary and by Zola in the urban depravity of Nana, who represented a city in which everything, especially love, is for sale. Memorable vignettes here include the exiled Wagner producing TannhÃ„user for the frivolous Parisians; the massacre of citizens in Napoleon's coup and again after his defeat; the Exposition of 1867, with its 52,000 exhibits; and a history of syphilis, the disease that probably took Manet's life. Rich, vivid, imaginatively organized--a 19th-century Bonfire of the Vanities, a true one, ready for the big screen.