In classical music it is customary to describe the tempo of a piece by one or more words, most commonly in Italian, in addition to or instead of a metronome mark in beats per minute. Italian is typically used because it was the language of most composers during the time these descriptions became commonplace. Some well-known Italian tempo indications include "Allegro" (meaning fast, quickly, and bright), "Andante" (at a walking pace) and "Presto" (very, very fast).This practice developed during the 17th and 18th centuries, the baroque and classical periods.

In the Baroque period, pieces would typically be given an indication, which might be a tempo marking (e.g. Allegro), or the name of a dance (e.g. Allemande or Sarabande), the latter being an indication both of tempo and of meter. Any musician of the time was expected to know how to interpret these markings based on custom and experience.

Many tempo markings also indicate mood and expression. For example, presto and allegro both indicate a speedy execution (presto being faster), but allegro also connotes joy (from its original meaning in Italian). Presto, on the other hand, simply indicates speed. Additional Italian words also indicate tempo and mood. For example, the "agitato" in the Allegro agitato of the last movement of George Gershwin's piano concerto in F has both a tempo indication (undoubtedly faster than a usual Allegro) and a mood indication ("agitated").

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