As increasing geographic detail filled the previously empty spaces on maps, opportunities for incorporating decorative elements into the map itself diminished correspondingly. It was inevitable that artistically inclined mapmakers would look to the borders as blank canvases. The decorative borders thus constituted a frame for the geographic picture. Furthermore, appropriately designed images could create a conceptual setting for the geography and provide supplementary information such as pictures of inhabitants and their customs, and of the fauna, flora, and natural resources of the lands portrayed Alternatively, the decorative imagery could be unrelated to the geography and be devoted to scientific exposition or allegorical themes, or could simply be a visual catalog of information concerning the universe or the human condition.
The format of the border decorations, initially free-form with one image merging into another to fill the available space surrounding the map itself, gradually became more compartmentalized and culminated in a formalized arrangement of paneled vignettes on three or four sides of the map. This format, termed “carte d. figure,” first appeared on early seventeenth century Dutch wall maps, and was subsequently widely used on smaller maps in various countries.