Athlae Lyon died in a Naples hospital on May ' />

A "beautiful" philanthropist has died suddenly from a "savage infection" while on holiday in Italy.

Athlae Lyon died in a Naples hospital on May 18, with husband Cliff and children Cameron and Shona at her side.

Lyon, of Auckland's Kohimarama, was a founding trustee of the Starship Foundation, which raises funds for the children's hospital, and served on its board for almost 20 years.

She was involved with several other charities, including the New Zealand Breast Cancer Foundation.

Rosie Horton was friends with Lyon for almost 30 years and described her as her "right-hand person".

"I am heartbroken. I keep thinking ... it's a bad dream or a bad novel. Auckland is the great loser in her death."

Horton described Lyon and her husband as "intrepid travellers" who visited Italy often. They had been on holiday for about a month when tragedy struck.

Horton said she did not know what sort of infection had taken her friend.

"Family and friends back here are just in a state of shock. They had a very happy time and this was totally and utterly just out of the blue."

The family is making arrangements to bring Lyon's body home.

Starship Foundation chief executive Andrew Young said news of Lyon's death had hit his team hard: "We've had a lot of tears in our office this week."

Lyon visited the hospital often, said Young.