The great ball, that sits 120 m up on top of the dome of St Peter's basilica, is being washed by restoration experts, for the first time since it was put up in 1593. They have found that the ball is completely covered in gold and it is signed, in Latin, by the architect Giacomo della Porta and his son Paolo.

Although the ball looks quite small from a distance, it is possible to reach it by a spiral staircase, and once through the very narrow trap door, it will hold up to 20 people. No visits have been allowed for more than 50 years and the last pope to make the journey to the very top was Pope Pius IX on 29 June 1847, the feast day of St Peter and St Paul. On his descent from the dome he attended a picnic dinner party on the roof of the basilica given for Vatican courtiers and priests.

Restoration work on the golden orb has almost been completed and when the scaffolding is removed it is expected to shine brilliantly in the sunlight.